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Proxy Wars: The Intrigues Leading to Kenya’s Invasion of Somalia

13 min read.

Kenya had been spoiling for a fight with Somalia for some time.



WAR GAMES: The intrigues leading to Kenya’s invasion of Somalia
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“To my daughter I will say, ‘when the men come, set yourself on fire’.” – Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth

In July 2011, while the world’s attention was focused on the famine in Somalia, a plot was being hatched in Nairobi to cross the Kenya-Somalia border and wage a war against the terrorist group Al Shabaab.

Kenya had been spoiling for a fight with Somalia for some time. Cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that the Kenyan government had intentions to militarily intervene in Somalia as early as 2009, and had been trying to convince the United States government about the wisdom of its plan. At that time, the Mwai Kibaki coalition administration had big plans for Kenya’s northeastern and coastal regions, including a large deep-sea port in Lamu and a new transport corridor known as the Lamu Port and South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) that would link the port to Ethiopia and to the oil wells of the newly independent state of Southern Sudan. Creating a safe buffer zone within Somalia to protect Kenya’s ambitious project was part of the plan. Dubbed the “Jubbaland Initiative”, the ultimate goal was to install a Kenya-friendly regional administration in Kismaayo, the capital of Somalia’s Juba region that borders Kenya. According to a newspaper report published in the Daily Nation, in December 2009, Kenya’s then Foreign Minister, Moses Wetang’ula, told a sceptical senior US official that if the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, its success was guaranteed – it would be like “a hot knife through butter”.

However, Kenya’s opportunity for military intervention in Somalia only came in the last quarter of 2011 when David Tebbut, a British tourist, was killed and his wife Judith kidnapped while on holiday at the Kenyan coast. What at first appeared to be the work of pirates or criminal gangs was quickly attributed by the Kenyan government to Al Shabaab, which controlled large swathes of south and central Somalia. (The extremist group denied being involved and, according to the BBC, the British government concluded that “those holding her were Somali pirates, purely after money, and not the extremist insurgency group, Al Shabaab”).

Kenya’s then Foreign Minister, Moses Wetang’ula, told a sceptical senior US official that if the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, its success was guaranteed – it would be like “a hot knife through butter”.

The official reason for Kenya’s mission was to seize control of the port of Kismaayo in order to cut off Al Shabaab’s economic lifeline. The Kenyan forces were assisted in their mission by the Ras Kamboni militia led by Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Islam, popularly known as Madobe. Interestingly, Madobe had at various stages of his career as an insurgent been a member of the extremist organisation Al Itihad, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) that took control of Mogadishu in 2006, and also of Al Shabaab. Prior to joining the Kenyan forces, he had fallen out with the Ras Kamboni Brigades founded by his brother-in-law Hassan Turki, a career jihadist who had joined forces with Al Shabaab to lay claim over Kismaayo. American journalist Jeremy Scahill, in his book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, says that Madobe’s change of heart vis-à-vis Al Shabaab came about after he spent two years in an Ethiopian prison after he was captured while fleeing Ethiopian and American forces when the ICU fell in 2006.

In the early part of 2011, prior to joining forces with Madobe’s militia, the Kenyan government had plans to support Mohamed Abdi Mohamed “Gandhi”, the former minister of defence and an Ogadeni from the Juba region, to administer a potential Jubaland regional authority called “Azania” that would serve as a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia. It is believed that the Ethiopian government opposed the creation of an Ogadeni-dominated authority in Jubaland (though Madobe also belongs to the Ogadeni clan) because it believed that such an entity had the potential to embolden secessionist sentiments in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and so Kenya – an important ally of Ethiopia – abandoned the plan.

Contradictory US policies towards Somalia

Contrary to popular belief, Kenya’s decision to invade Somalia was a “proxy war” that the US government was not willing to engage in. Wikileaks cables indicate that while the Kenyan government had been pitching the invasion to the US government for some time, it had always met resistance and scepticism. US officials were concerned that the mission could turn out to be more complicated and expensive than Kenya predicted.

It is possible that the US government realised that its support for the 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia that led to the ouster of the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu had led to more, not less, instability; hence it did not want to repeat the same mistake. Initially, the United States had mixed feelings about the rise of the ICU, which consisted of groups of businesspeople, Muslim clerics and others who had united to bring about a semblance of governance in a dysfunctional state. The former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen, told Scahill that some Somalia experts within the US administration welcomed the expulsion of murderous warlords in Mogadishu by the ICU. However, fears that the ICU (which had gained legitimacy through religion rather than the clan, which has been a divisive factor in Somalia) could morph into something more sinister led to a decision to remove it from power. The then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, is widely credited for convincing the US government to support Ethiopian forces to oust the ICU, an action that the BBC journalist Mary Harper describes as “one of the most counterproductive foreign initiatives towards Somalis in recent years”.

The potential “Talibanisation” of Somalia was probably what prompted the United States to back the Ethiopian forces that pushed the ICU out of Mogadishu in December 2006, just six months after the latter had taken control of the city. The ICU then broke up into factions, the most extreme of which was Al Shabaab, which took control over most of south and central Somalia.

In the early part of 2011, prior to joining forces with Madobe’s militia, the Kenyan government had plans to support Mohamed Abdi Mohamed “Gandhi”, the former minister of defence and an Ogadeni from the Juba region, to administer a potential Jubaland regional authority called “Azania” that would serve as a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia.

An advisor to the US military told Scahill that the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 was a classic proxy war coordinated by the United States government, which provided air power and paid for the roughly 50,000 Ethiopian troops that ejected the ICU from Mogadishu. The invasion was in line with the US “no boots on the ground” policy, whereby the US financially supports African forces on the ground without actually sending US military personnel to the conflict zones.

However, the advisor also admitted that there were some US forces, including the CIA, on the ground in Somalia. Prior to the Ethiopian invasion, the US had started supporting a new group comprising pro-government leaders and warlords under the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, which accepted US support in exchange for handing over key Al Qaeda members. US support for groups that were perceived as criminals or illegitimate by a large number of Somalis gained the ICU many converts.

The Ethiopian invasion was extremely costly in terms of the number of lives lost and the large scale displacement. Reports began to emerge of Ethiopian soldiers slaughtering Somali men, women and children “like goats”. Ethiopia, which has had historical and bitter disputes with Somalia for decades, and which is feared and loathed in equal measure by Somalis, was beginning to look like a brutal occupying force. Al Shabaab eventually drove out the Ethiopians in 2008. In other words, the Ethiopian invasion succeeded in replacing the ICU with a virulent and lethal force of its own making. And the United States was caught, once again, with egg on its face.

Political scientist Michael J. Boyle says that just as US efforts to eliminate Mohammed Farah Aideed had backfired in 1993, the US decision to remove the ICU was equally disastrous because it succeeded in overthrowing the only force that was capable of restoring a semblance of order on the streets of Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. During its short reign, the ICU is credited with flushing out warlords from Mogadishu and with successfully resolving land and other disputes, which Somalia’s weak and highly corrupt Transitional Federal Government (TFG) had been unable to do since it assumed power in 2004.

Having failed to root out extremist groups from Somalia, the United States then embarked on a strategy to include the same groups within the UN-backed TFG, a move that astounded even the most die-hard critics of US foreign policy. It is rumoured that in 2008 a senior US diplomat convinced Abdullahi Yusuf, the TFG’s first president, to resign in order to pave the way for a TFG leadership comprising members of the ousted ICU, which had splintered into various groups, including Al Shabaab, that were opposed to the TFG. Having invested so heavily in Ethiopian forces to remove the ICU from Somalia, it appeared extraordinary that the United States would now be planning for its inclusion in the transitional government.

The then US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, is widely credited for convincing the US government to support Ethiopian forces to oust the ICU, an action that the BBC journalist Mary Harper describes as “one of the most counterproductive foreign initiatives towards Somalis in recent years”.

President Abdullahi Yusuf finally ceded to US government pressure and resigned in December 2008, eight months before his tenure was to end. Subsequently, a meeting was held in Djibouti, where there is a sizeable US military presence and where Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (the leader of the ICU), Nur Adde and Maslah Siad Barre (the former Somali president Siad Barre’s son), among others, were gathered to vie for the presidency of Somalia under the auspices of the United Nations Political Office for Somalia (UNPOS). Although the elections seemed to favour Barre, UNPOS, headed at that time by the Mauritanian Ould Abdallah, proposed and selected 275 additional parliamentarians drawn mainly from the ICU to the already bloated 275-member parliament. This skewed the election in favour of the ICU leader who the US government now viewed as “a moderate Islamist”. “To veteran observers of Somali politics, Sharif [Sheikh Ahmed]’s re-emergence was an incredible story,” wrote Scahill. “The United States had overthrown the ICU government only to later back him as the country’s president.”

This hoodwinking and double-dealing would later manifest itself in the Barack Obama administration’s 2010 “dual-track” policy in Somalia whereby the US government dealt with the transitional government in Mogadishu while also engaging with regional and clan leaders, including warlords. Under Obama, covert operations, such as drone attacks, targeted killings and wiretapping, also escalated. Scahill claims that while Obama appeared to be scaling down operations in Guantanamo Bay, illegal detentions were being “decentralised” and “outsourced” to secret prisons in other places, including Mogadishu.

KDF blunders at home

It was against this background that the US Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, told a high-powered Kenyan delegation attending an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa in January 2010 that if the Kenyan troops were defeated, there would be negative domestic repercussions. Carson wanted a more “conventional” method of addressing the Al Shabaab menace and was deeply pessimistic about Kenya’s ambitions to create a buffer zone along its border. Some neighbouring countries also expressed fears that the invasion could have the unintended consequence of strengthening Al Shabaab and making Kenya more insecure.

As the critics predicted, retaliatory terrorist attacks in Kenya escalated after Kenyan forces entered Somalia in October 2011, and particularly during the first few months after the new government of President Uhuru Kenyatta was elected in 2013. An analysis by Nation Newsplex showed that there were nine times more terror attacks in the 45 months after the invasion than the 45 months before it.

Having failed to root out extremist groups from Somalia, the United States then embarked on a strategy to include the same groups within the UN-backed TFG, a move that astounded even the most die-hard critics of US foreign policy.

The most shocking attack took place in September 2013 at the up-market Westgate mall in Nairobi where 67 people were killed. What stood out in this and subsequent attacks was the inept response by the Kenyan security forces, including the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF). In an article published in the local press immediately after the attack, a retired military officer, Lieutenant-General Humphrey Njoroge, said that the rescue mission suffered from a broken command structure, poor screening of people fleeing the mall and outright incompetence, which may have handed the terrorists an upper hand. The blunders began in the first hours of the attack. By mid-afternoon, some three or four hours after the terrorists began their shooting spree, the US-trained anti-terrorist Recce squad seemed to have isolated and cornered the terrorists. However, the subsequent arrival of KDF soldiers may have contributed to disrupting the chain of command.

In an article published in Foreign Policy on the second anniversary of the attack, Tristan McConnell, a foreign correspondent based in Nairobi, claimed that by the time the Recce squad and KDF entered the mall, most of the so-called “hostages” in the mall had already been evacuated safely, thanks to the courage of a few uniformed, plainclothes and off-duty police officers who responded to emergency calls. “Far from a dramatic three-day standoff, the assault on the Westgate mall lasted only a few hours, almost all of it taking place before Kenyan security forces even entered the building,” wrote McConnell. “When they finally did, it was only to shoot at one another before going on an armed looting spree that resulted in the collapse of the rear of the building, destroyed with a rocket-propelled grenade. And there were only four gunmen, all of whom were buried in the rubble, along with much of the forensic evidence.”

Meanwhile, a judicial commission of inquiry on the three-day siege of the mall promised by President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to materialise.

The following year, in June, more than 60 men were killed in a horrific terror attack in Mpeketoni in Lamu County. As during the Westgate attack, the security services were again implicated in bungling the rescue operation. There were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni abandoned prior to the attack and villagers left on their own to deal with the terrorists. Their frantic phone calls to the police requesting for reinforcements were apparently ignored. Many spent several nights in the bush waiting for help to arrive. Kenya’s Independent Policing Oversight Authority blamed the police for failing to heed to warnings about an imminent threat and for not responding to the villagers’ cries for help in time.

The worst attack – in terms of numbers – took place in April 2015 when 147 students at Garissa University College were butchered by Al Shabaab. Again, the security forces’ response was a little too late. According to media reports, soldiers from a military barracks in the vicinity of the university cordoned off the campus but failed to go in and rescue the students. The alarm at the base of the specially-trained Recce squad on the outskirts of Nairobi was sounded at 6 a.m. on the morning of the attack but the squad was put on standby as the military said it could handle the situation. As a result, its members arrived in Garissa nearly eleven hours later, long after a majority of the victims had been killed. Even though a core team had arrived in Garissa by 2 p.m., the rescue operation did not begin till around 5 p.m. It took the officers only half an hour to corner and kill the terrorists. If they had arrived earlier, many lives could have been saved. Most of the students’ parents blamed the delayed security response for the death of their children.

This hoodwinking and double-dealing would later manifest itself in the Barack Obama administration’s 2010 “dual-track” policy in Somalia whereby the US government dealt with the transitional government in Mogadishu while also engaging with regional and clan leaders, including warlords.

Kenyans thought that President Kenyatta’s stand on Kenya’s military presence in Somalia would soften after these attacks. However, this did not happen. Kenyatta said that Kenyan forces would remain in Somalia until the government there was stable. Those demanding for a withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia were labelled as “talking the language of the terrorists” and admonished as unpatriotic.

KDF blunders in Somalia

Four months after KDF entered Somalia – when it became apparent that the forces were not making substantial headway, and after the Somali government sent out feelers that it was not happy with a foreign force within Somali territory – a deal was made for the Kenyan forces to join the other African forces enrolled under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Under the new arrangement, Kenyan troops were “re-hatted” as AMISOM, and were allowed to continue with their mission in southern Somalia. The agreement also allowed the KDF to claim compensation for equipment lost or destroyed during the invasion. According to official sources, the military operation had been costing the Kenyan government about 200 million shillings (about $2.3 million) per month. The new arrangement, funded mainly by the United States and European countries, alleviated this heavy financial burden on the Kenyan taxpayer and also gained the mission legitimacy.

In September 2012, almost one year after the Kenyan invasion, Kismaayo, the prized port that was Al Shabaab’s main economic base, fell to the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces. It was a major victory for the Kenyans, but one that would soon be marred by rumours of Kenyan and Ras Kamboni soldiers exporting charcoal from the port, despite a UN Security Council ban.

It is estimated that before the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces pushed out Al Shabaab from the port of Kismaayo, the militant group was exporting about one million bags of charcoal to the Middle East and Gulf countries every month. (Slow-burning charcoal is a much sought-after cooking fuel in the Gulf states, where it is used to roast meat and also to light fruit-flavoured waterpipes called shisha). When the Kenyan and Somali forces entered Kismaayo, they discovered an estimated four million sacks of charcoal with an international market value of at least $60 million lined up ready for export. The UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea alleges that the Kenyan and Ras Kamboni forces continued exporting the charcoal despite the UN ban, and that the export of charcoal more than doubled under their watch.

In its 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group also made the astonishing claim that revenue from the port of Kismaayo – which was being collected through taxes, charcoal exports and the importation of cheap sugar – was equally divided between the Kenyan forces, the Interim Jubaland Administration headed by Ahmed Madobe and Al Shabaab. There were also rumours of KDF and Al Shabaab entering into mutually beneficial financial partnerships at roadblocks where “taxes” were collected from vehicles.

There were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni being abandoned prior to the attack and villagers being left to their own devices to deal with the terrorists.

All these allegations, however, have been denied by the Kenyan government, but they do not surprise many Kenyans, who have still not got over the fact that Kenya’s security forces indulged in a massive looting spree during the Westgate mall attack; until this attack, the Kenyan military was generally viewed as being more disciplined and less corruptible than the country’s notoriously corrupt police force. As the Kenyan opposition leader Jakoyo Midiwo, who has for some time been advocating for the withdrawal of Kenya troops from Somalia, commented, “When citizens of Somalia come to realise what our soldiers are doing on their soil, they are bound to retaliate. When this happens, it is the ordinary Kenyan who will suffer.”

None of these allegations affected how the KDF was viewed at home. In fact, the then Chief of the Defence Forces, General Julius Karangi, who has the look and demeanour of a chubby teddy bear rather than that of a military commander, was celebrated as a hero by the country’s leadership and reports about KDF’s involvement in the charcoal trade in Somalia were largely dismissed.

Part of the reason why the Kenyan forces might have got away with their alleged misdemeanours is because of the lack of a clear and strong command structure within AMISOM. Its headquarters in Mogadishu, dominated largely by Ugandan soldiers, appears to be operating independently, with little collaboration with foreign intelligence agencies or sufficient oversight by donor countries. In fact, when the allegations about illegal charcoal sales appeared in the press, there was no response or threats of withdrawal of funding for Kenyan troops from European Union countries, AMISOM’s largest funders, which surprised many. This could be because the government in Mogadishu, which has the backing of the international community, is almost entirely dependent on AMISOM for security, though there are plans underway to strengthen the Somalia National Army.

In its 2014 report to the UN Security Council, the UN Monitoring Group also made the astonishing claim that revenue from the port of Kismaayo, which was being collected through taxes, charcoal exports and the importation of cheap sugar, were equally divided between the Kenyan forces, the Interim Jubaland Administration headed by Ahmed Madobe and Al Shabaab.

Writer Velda Felbab-Brown, in an article published in Foreign Affairs in June 2015, explains why, despite some success in routing out Al Shabaab, the African Union forces have so far been unable to completely subdue the terrorist organisation. The main reason, she says, is because “offensive operations are decided mostly on a sector bases, with the forces in each area reporting and taking orders from their own capitals”. Because of this fragmented and uncoordinated approach, there is a perception that AMISOM is politically manipulated by troop-producing countries, especially Kenya and Ethiopia. When Ethiopia joined AMISOM in 2014, some Somali analysts even wondered how a country that had invaded Somalia in 2006 could be allowed to re-enter it militarily under the banner of the African Union.

Meanwhile, more than six years after Kenyan boots entered Somalia, there seems to be no stabilisation plan for the region, nor any exit strategy for the Kenyan forces. KDF is still in Jubaland and Madobe is its president. Like the Ethiopians, who invaded Somalia in 2006 and stayed on for two years, the Kenyans have started to look and feel like an occupying force.

Because of this fragmented and uncoordinated approach, there is a perception that AMISOM is politically manipulated by troop-producing countries, especially Kenya and Ethiopia.

For now, it appears that any decision President Uhuru Kenyatta makes regarding Kenya’s presence in Somalia will be guided by what his military commanders and security experts advise him – and to a certain extent, by the countries funding AMISOM – not by a well thought-out policy to bring about long-term stability in Somalia and to forge stronger ties with the government in Mogadishu.

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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).


‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.



‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened
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On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:

“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.

The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.

The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.

Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics

The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.

As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.

The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.

As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.

Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change  

From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.

Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.

Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.

Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:

“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”

Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.

‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’? 

Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.

Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:

“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’

These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.

“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.

The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.

Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.

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The Dictatorship of the Church

From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.



The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.

Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.

Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.

Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.

The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.

Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health servicesCritics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”

Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.

A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.

Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.

In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique

Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.

Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.

The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.

A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.

More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.

In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.

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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Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror

The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.



Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
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Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.

“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”

Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.

Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.

At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.

Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.

Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned.  US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.

The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.

AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.

Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”

Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.

I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.

Sweet home Alabama! 

An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.

Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.

He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.

We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.

What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.

Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked

King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.

In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.

Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.

Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.

Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.

“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.

The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.

According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.

A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.

The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.  “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.

These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.

The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.

The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.

The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.

The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”

With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:

And this bird, you cannot change

Lord help me, I can’t change….

Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.

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