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ASHES IN OUR MOUTHS: The Aftermath of Kenya’s Electoral Coup

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ASHES IN OUR MOUTHS: The Aftermath of Kenya’s Elecoral Coup
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The epic legal battles which have defined Kenya’s presidential contest this year ended, not with the loud bang of the Chief Justice David Maraga’s gavel, but with a whimper and muted celebrations. In the end, it seems, even the resolute Justice David Maraga-led Supreme Court succumbed to political intimidations and Jubilee secured a hard-wrung, bloodstained but Pyrrhic victory.

But for the executioners of Kenya’s electoral coup, the legitimacy deficit occasioned by a low voter turnout, dubious legal victories and political violence, counts for little. The end justifies the means.

However, how Jubilee secured this victory -and the resistance it had engendered- provides insights into what we might expect to define political struggles in Kenya’s competitive authoritarian regime, in the coming season of street battles.

It should worry all and sundry, who care for Kenya’s liberal democratic aspirations. It is the harbinger of a political struggle characterized by civic activism and state sanctioned political violence, by the police and allied militias, as well as by resistance from the National Super Alliance/National Resistance Movement, but without any trusted arbiters of deep seated political grievances.

Jubilee secured the ultimate legal stamp of approval through a legal but morally dubious political processes, made possible by the Executive’s sleight of hand that outwitted both the Chief Justice and other litigants, buttressed by the government-instigated credible threat of apocalyptic genocidal political violence in the slums of Nairobi, and some instances of resistance by undisciplined and easily infiltrated protests by the opposition.

The epic legal battles which have defined Kenya’s presidential contest this year ended, not with the loud bang of the Chief Justice David Maraga’s gavel, but with a whimper and muted celebrations.

The destructions of nascent democratic institutions, which Jubilee’s twin tactics, legal and extra-legal, have left in their wake, may well mean that in Kenya’s struggle for change, where civic action (lawfare) led by the urban middle class competes with, and sometimes complements, street fights between the urban poor and police, the latter encounters may dominate the struggle in the coming months. A look at how these have played out points to several worrying trends. Lawfare first.

Judiciary

If the execution of the August 8 electoral coup had claimed the independent electoral commission, the police service, the police oversight authority, and Kenya’s “main-street” media, then its backlash against the Supreme Court following the September 1 setback may have claimed the nascent independence of the judiciary, its transparent methods of determining disputes, and its polite but firm approach to litigants. And more.

In a first in Kenya’s electoral history, the Cabinet Secretary in charge of security declared the day before the October 26 repeat presidential poll a public holiday. The decision rendered most courts inoperative, except the High Court and the Supreme Court, which had express permission from the Chief Justice to hear all the pending and urgent election-related cases, before them.

But something happened. First, the Supreme Court failed to muster the necessary quorum, at least five out of seven judges, to listen to a case filed by democracy activists seeking to stop the poll. Justice Maraga was hard pressed to explain the absence of some of the judges.

Despite his efforts, it is still hard to understand why only he and Justice Isaac Lenaola had reported to work on that day. The absence of the indisposed Justice Ibrahim and Philomena Mwilu, the Deputy Chief Justice, whose driver had been shot and wounded the previous day, may indeed be excused but where were Justices Njoki Ndungu, J.B. Ojwang’ and Smokin Wanjala?

Jubilee’s bloodstained victory has come at a great cost to the nascent institutions of Kenya’s democracy: judicial reforms, police reforms, and electoral reforms. It now boasts the legal imprimatur of Kenya’s apex court

Then, three judges at the Court of Appeal held a late night sitting which delivered a significant judgment, in curious circumstances and without listening to both parties to the case, which overturned an earlier ruling by the High Court that had declared the appointment of election officials unconstitutional. It was eerily reminiscent of the travesties of justice during the late- night Mwakenya trials of the 1980s.

The Court of Appeal did not have express permission from the Chief Justice to meet on this day as it was not one of the courts mentioned his October 24 memo which allowed sittings on the public holiday. But it received and determined a petition, late at night, filed by one of the litigants, while during the day, other litigants could neither find a register nor a duty judge.

What’s more, in marked departure from the Court of Appeal’s judicial tradition, this late-night Court, without listening to both parties to the case, rescinded an earlier High Court decision that ruled that the IEBC had irregularly appointed the returning officers who were to preside over the re-run. Why did the grant of ex-parte orders under such circumstance? Why did the Court of Appeal President, Justice Kihara Kariuki, empanel only this court for only one of the many litigants on this day?

Glossed over by Kenya’s ‘main-street media,’ this act and the subsequent ruling by Justices Erastus Githinji, Martha Koome and Fatuma Sichale, point to a judiciary with two centers of power- one de jure, under the authority of the Chief Justice, and another de facto one, but answerable to Justice Karikui or a power higher than the Chief Justice’s, located somewhere else.

Justice Kihara’s action bodes ill for the rule of law. Courts should be predictable and accessible to all. Late-night courts must be the anti-thesis of justice which must not only be done, but also be seen to be done, sometimes literally under the glare of television cameras, and especially when political stakes are high.

In November, the Supreme Court returned. If the six-judge bench of September 1 was firm, patient and polite, this time, they were irascible, a little impetuous and imperious. If last time the court was a lot more engaged, taking both an adversarial and inquisitorial approach to determine the first petition, this time round the court seemed detached. It took a purely adversarial approach, allowing the litigants to slug it out, more in its 2013 mode.

Unlike the confident, but split bench that delivered the historic September 1 ruling, the judges returned to work united but subdued.

This time, the Court was quorate with all but one of the seven judges present. They reported for duty without fail for seven consecutive days. But true to the black and crimson red robes and white bibs, the traditional colors of Kenya’s judiciary, they were conservative to the core.

The court seemed disinterested in several aspects of the two petitions. It threw out most of the petitioners’ prayers which suggests two possibilities: the petitions were either irredeemably defective, or that the court recoiled at the prospect of another bruising battle with the executive.

If it is the first, then there is little cause for alarm. No doubt, the Court’s full judgment, when released, will shed light on why, in their eyes, the two petitions had “no merit.”

The second possibility, however, also deserves attention. Was the court acting out of an instinct for self-preservation? Was it trying to avoid the kind of assault that the Jubilee government, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, as well as its own Justice Njoki Ndungu, had launched following the invalidation of the August election?

The judiciary had come under unrelenting assault after the September judgment. The executive had attacked the Court and its partners mostly on the strength of Justice Ndungu’s claims that the majority judges did not scrutinize the relevant electoral reforms, something supposedly corroborated by Ezra Chiloba, the IEBC’s chief executive officer. It targeted the Registrar of the Supreme Court, and the International Development Law Organization, which it accused of inappropriately influencing subversive jurisprudence, threatening the separation of powers between it and the judiciary.

In the second set of presidential petitions, the Supreme Court judges steered clear of the whole kit and caboodle of the IEBC’s paraphernalia: the servers, the Kenya Integrated Electoral Management System (KIEMS), the numerical and alphabetically designated forms: 34A, 34B, 34C, and 32C.

This was a big victory for the IEBC. The compromised electoral management body would no doubt welcome a process that neither made reference to servers and KIEMS kits, nor pressed hard to produce a voter register, without placing unreasonable financial barriers on the path of petitioners. These were black boxes of this year’s general election, keeping the all-important record of how many Kenyans voted and whom they voted for.

The path to Kenya’s Supreme Court denouement has been long and convoluted, sometimes defying easy comprehension, and has arguably left Kenya with a weaker, much less confident Judiciary.

When finally delivered the ruling, Chief Justice Maraga was brief. There was no grand opening statement, no more soaring ecclesiastical aspirations or temporally lofty nationalist ambitions as in September. Faith and courage seemed to have deserted the now united six-judge bench. The court, it seems, had been “fixed” to its rightful Third World size.

And, in Pontius Pilate like response to the Kenyans competing cries, “Give us Uhuruto or Democracy,” they seem to have unanimously delivered all Kenyans into the hands of Uhuruto’s well-planned conservative backlash against the 2010 constitution.

They gave Jubilee government a Tano Tena, five more years, without the hearty high-fives and thunderous applause that greeted the September’s landmark decision. Rather, the good news was received with a tad luke-warm celebration within the wood-paneled courtroom, even among the battery of lawyers who had fought to hard to secure it. Clearly, the court didn’t quite surprise the winning team.

The path to Kenya’s Supreme Court denouement has been long and convoluted, sometimes defying easy comprehension, and has arguably left Kenya with a weaker, much less confident Judiciary.

These events point to sinister happenings within the Judiciary and, possibly, an on-going internecine power struggle, captured in the condescending and hectoring tone of the Supreme Court minority’s dissenting judgment in the first petition, and the rogue conduct of the Court of Appeal of dispensing selective late-night justice.

They do not augur well for the administration of justice. Not only is the ruling party contesting the Chief Justice’s authority, but also his own colleagues are. Can the Supreme Court’s newfound unity following the unanimous second verdict heal this rift and restore Justice Maraga’s administrative authority over the entire judiciary?

The erosion of the legitimacy of the court, especially of the Chief Justice’s authority and transparent procedures of determining political disputes, will increasingly only leave one avenue open for those who oppose Jubilee government, but are outnumbered in all the formal political arenas of Kenya’s democracy including parliament: the streets. However, this is a rough terrain, especially for the easily baited and undisciplined NASA street protestors, as recent events demonstrate.

Street protests

Kenya’s street struggle for democracy has in part always been a gladiatorial contest between the police (including the paramilitary General Service Unit) and the urban poor. Since 2007, the securocrats opposed to Kenya’s democratization process have built a formidable and lethal police capacity against organized protest.

How the state has policed the street protest has also changed, borrowing a great deal from Apartheid South Africa: through masculine and menacing deployment of troops and specialized vehicles, mostly aimed at containing the protests within the slums, and turning broad party political disputes into a narrow ethnic and intra-slum violence. But this year’s pattern of state orchestrated violence suggests something more insidious.

The State has kept the protests far away from the business districts of cities like Nairobi and Kisumu, and from the high-income neighborhoods adjoining the hundreds of urban slums. This provocative posture by the police has easily lured the NASA protestors to respond in kind, but with slings, and acts of arson, which is clearly no match for the deadly arsenal of the police. The protestors’ casualties and location attest to this asymmetrical warfare. Nairobi’s Kibra, Mathare, Kawangware, Lucky Summer and Baba Dogo, as well as Kisumu’s Kondele, Obunga and Nyalenda “Carwash”, have borne the brunt of the political violence this year.

However, in pattern reminiscent of the Apartheid police’s repression of urban protests in South Africa, Julia Steers notes that police violence in the slums this August was aimed at decapitating the urban-poor’s political community’s leadership by turning some residents of the urban slums into snitches, who identify “ protest organizers and known opposition supporters” who are then marked for murder. These tactics tear apart the social fabric of the urban poor, brew mistrust, and valorize intra-urban poor violence.

Similarly, in a replay of the 1969 anti-KPU strategy of repressing protests, the Jubilee government has particularly trained its guns on the protestors in the counties of Kisumu, Homa-Bay, Migori and Siaya, with deadly outcomes. By targeting the beachhead of NASA’s core support base, this kind of violence courts a collective ethnic Luo backlash against the real or imagined supporters of the Jubilee party in living in these areas.

It also seeks to draw out a loud Luo response, which can be manipulated to reduce the broad-based NASA resistance against the Jubilee government into “a Luo only affair” for which several ready “cultural” and binary explanations abound. Such the “ dynastic feuds between the Jaramogi Odinga and Jomo Kenyatta families” or “the Luo-Kikuyu historical rivalries,” which mask the question of electoral justice at the heart of the current political conflicts.

In 2007, Mwai Kibaki’s regime executed political violence against the real or imagined opposition supporters, from above through the police, and GSU, as well as from below through the Kikuyu militia known as the Mungiki. In this, the police, and the Mungiki, largely acted separately. Conversely, ODM, the opposition, executed political violence through spontaneous protests and various organized militia groups in the urban slums of Nairobi, in particular and in the Rift Valley.

When finally delivered the ruling, Chief Justice Maraga was brief. There was no grand opening statement, no more soaring ecclesiastical aspirations or temporally lofty nationalist ambitions as in September. Faith and courage seemed to have deserted the now united six-judge bench. The court, it seems, had been “fixed” to its rightful Third World size.

This year, though, the police and a militia group widely thought to be the Mungiki were acting jointly against the real or imagined opposition supporters. Many news reports suggest that the Mungiki were camouflaged in military fatigues or police uniforms. Numerous accounts of dread-locked police wearing jeans, gunfire from unmarked cars, of police armed with both machetes and guns as well as protesters in opposition strongholds with gun wounds, slit-throats or deep machete wounds, suggest a blurring of boundaries between the police and the urban slum militias.

If police violence against protestors was previously justified in the name of protecting private property, the recent footage of policemen, including those in senior ranks, hurling rocks at or lobbing tear-gas canisters or shooting into vehicles carrying the NASA politicians, suggests that the police now act as agent-provocateurs.

At any rate, how Jubilee has unleashed state violence and how the police have largely stood by as “unknown gunmen” shoot and kill hapless slam dwellers, tells a story of a regime that desperately wants to retain state power at any cost.

Politically expedient, these acts by the incumbent were calculated to achieve several outcomes: increase the cost of individual’s participation in protests, drive Kenya to the edge of apocalyptic genocidal violence and thus force the judges to rule in a particular way.

These acts suggests that Kenya’s dreams of ever bringing the armed forces under democratic control, through institutions such the Independent Police Oversight Authority (IPOA), and getting rid of political militias, especially during the elections, are slowly evaporating. Ominously, Kenya is increasingly criminalizing the police and militarizing the criminals.

The blurring of the difference between the police and the militia, or the police as the militia of the ruling regime, delegitimizes the Police. It might lead to an increase in the formation of gangs by the urban communities on the receiving end of the violence of the police-militia violence and an arms race within the slums.

Jubilee’s bloodstained victory has come at a great cost to the nascent institutions of Kenya’s democracy: judicial reforms, police reforms, and electoral reforms. It now boasts the legal imprimatur of Kenya’s apex court.

It is a victory that has not only left many Kenya without a credible arbiter of political conflicts, precisely at the moment when political conflicts are escalating and divisions hardening, but also weakened both the Judiciary and criminalized the police. The police is steadily becoming the ruling party’s militia-writ large, with oversight institutions such as IPOA standing by as mere spectators in the agora of a deadly gladiatorial combat between the police and the urban poor. Kenya’s judiciary is shaken, precisely at the moment when Kenyans need a strong judiciary as the bulwark against Jubilee’s majoritarianism, its dictatorial ambitions, and a trigger-happy police force. While NASA’s protest movement has shown some creativity, it hasn’t truly demonstrated a disciplined non-violent or civic street protests, perhaps the only viable option out of the coming gladiatorial encounters.

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Akoko Akech is a graduate student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, presently living in Kisumu.

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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Politics

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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