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HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?

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HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?
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In January 2018, at the annual Makerere University Tumusiime-Mutebile Centre of Excellence (TMCE) Business Dialogue, the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Rugunda, stated that Uganda was now in a position to finance 70% of its budget. However, despite the rosy declaration by the National Resistance Movement stalwart, all indications point to an economy in free fall and one not poised to make major economic breakthroughs.

Basic healthcare remains a serious challenge: despite a commitment made with several other African countries to allocating 15% of their budgets to the health sector, Uganda allocates less than 10% (just over 6% this year) of its budget to health. A cholera outbreak in western Uganda in late 2017 signaled yet another drug stock-out. There were reports from the central region of a lack of drugs to treat hepatitis-B. A major drug and consumables (e.g. gloves) shortage was also reported in Mbale in eastern Uganda in January 2018. The Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which serves a catchment area of four million people, had received no drug consignments for two months.

Then in February this year, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee announced that a loan taken in 2016, in part to pay for drugs bought by the National Medical Stores, was not in fact passed on to the organisations for which it was borrowed. The Speaker of Parliament ordered a special audit to establish the use of the money.

At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.

The Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi, has so far explained that the funds were used for general budget support required in the last fiscal year: to plug a UGX 288 billion revenue shortfall, supplementary expenditure of UGX156 billion, and to substitute more expensive domestic borrowing amounting to 280 billion Uganda shillings.

Parliament is up in arms because when approval for the loan for budget support was first sought, it was rejected. Following a revised request emphasising the need for essential drugs, the request was approved. However, Parliament says it was duped as the beneficiaries were never advised about the arrival of the funds.

Muhakanizi is adamant that the money was banked in the government’s consolidated fund, along with all other sources of funds, and disbursed in the usual manner. One source says it is clear from the loan documents that it was never tied to the purchase of drugs. Furthermore, it appears that Parliament approved the loan on verbal presentations as to its usage, not on the loan documents. If this is so (the Auditor General is still investigating), then Parliament has revealed itself to be negligent in scrutinising and approving loans.

The underlying problem appears to be that, even with the PTA loan, there were simply insufficient funds for government business and the Treasury was unable to disburse all the money required by all sectors, even for essential expenditure like drugs. (Non-essential expenditure seems easier. It will be remembered that in 2016 a gratuity of UGX6.2 billion was paid by the President to 42 celebrity public servants as a reward for carrying out their ordinary duties. The Secretary to the Treasury was part of this privileged group.)

Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans.

The cash crisis persisted in 2018. At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.

This is not surprising as there has been a shortfall in expected revenues of UGX300 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, according to the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija. The shortfall is expected to double by the end of the year. By way of explanation, Kasaija claims that the budget estimates for 2017/1018 were wrong in some cases and there have been unexpected expenditures in others. The upshot, says Kasaija, is that ministries, departments and agencies have put in requests for an extra UGX2.3 trillion. This is needed for salaries, pensions, security and social assistance grants to low-income households, energy, as well as for the development budget. So far, only 38% (870 billion) of the excess expenditure has been approved in supplementary budgets.

Speaking of energy, Uganda is also experiencing a shortage of petrol. As with all fuel shortages, explanations include the refurbishment of infrastructure for the storage and transport of fuel, limited international supplies, delays in the construction of a pipeline from Kenya to Uganda, Kenyans, and myriad other excuses. What is not clear is why Uganda’s statutory fuel reserves are not replenished and in fact reserved for such emergencies. Why are the fuel reserves sold on the open market?

At the time of writing, news of the Uganda Police’s budget woes broke. The latest quarterly treasury release of UGX137 billion is sufficient only to fund operations at the Inspector General of Police’s headquarters and in three administrative regions, namely, Kampala Metropolitan, East Kyoga, Sipi and East Rwenzori. This means other operations, including criminal investigations and intelligence in Northern, Central and much of Western Uganda, are not funded. The Inspector General of Police has explained that operations will be rotated i.e. the next release will be used on operations in the areas that lost out this time.

Even though food is provided for, the association of police suppliers has suspended supplies while it demands payment of UGX 33 billion in arrears. This figure almost exactly matches the amount the police expects to spend on tear gas alone in a year. Total police arrears amount to UGX125 billion or a quarter of the annual budget. Suppliers have claimed that they are often threatened when pushing for payment.

The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”

Primary health, education and transport – all designated as priority areas for development – are affected by what can only be the slow-motion collapse of the Ugandan economy. Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans. Foreign exchange fluctuations and further falls in commodity prices could make the situation worse.

Konkola, Hambantota and other stories

The trouble with loans to administratively weak countries and to full-on captured states is that they are irresponsibly used and are unsustainable. It is also public knowledge that significant portions of public funds, which would include loans and grants made to the government of Uganda, if not squandered are stolen outright.

Unsustainable debt will eventually lead to a loss of Uganda’s ability to even generate income. Prime examples of this dynamic would be the Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia, Hambantota Harbour in Sri Lanka and Mozambique’s liquid natural gas deposits.

In 2014, under pressure from the World Bank to repay its debt, the Government of Zambia sought to sell Konkola, Zambia’s largest copper mines. The price was set at US$400 million, presumably after professional evaluation of Konkola’s potential revenues. The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”

He then found himself in the presence of President Mwanawasa and later the Zambian Parliament, being hailed as a great man. Addressing an investment conference in Bangalore in 2014, Agarwal boasted that Konkola had earned his company, Vedanta, between US$500 million and US$1 billion annually since he bought it – more than even its original sale price.

Another example is from Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, which derives from an ancient civilization noted for its irrigation and prosperous salt production industry. The harbour is the site of a port built in 2010 with a loan from China. A feasibility study for international ship-building, repair and freight services looked good on paper. However, like Uganda’s budgets, the feasibility study did not pan out and Sri Lanka defaulted on the loan repayments. Under the terms of the agreement, the harbour became the property of China for the next 99 years. There was an outcry, of course. Issues such as the initial viability of the loan were raised. Readjustments followed and now the harbour is a joint venture between China and Sri Lanka. Joint ventures managed by economic predators are no more profitable than unsustainable loans.

The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour.

More recently, in 2017, Mozambique lost future revenue from newly discovered natural gas deposits when the government defaulted on secret loans of US$2 billion. There too, a dodgy feasibility study showed that the loan was sustainable but it turns out it will take Mozambique ten years and most of the gas income to cover the loan and penalties for defaulting. The military and fishing equipment that it was ostensibly used for was being searched for by an international audit firm. The fishing fleet bought with some of the funds was rusting in dock as the business proved to be a loss-maker from the start. The government admitted that the fishing project was, in fact, a front for military acquisitions.

Of the many accounts of the Mozambican debt crisis, Ugandans and citizens of other developing countries should at least read the one by Bodo Ellmers of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, if only to form an idea of how our own oil discoveries could be squandered even before commercial production begins.

Naturally, after following developments in Zambia, Sri Lanka and Mozambique, one becomes nervous about Uganda’s situation. The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour. Chinese extractors are already mining the Lweera Wetland for sand at an industrial rate. The question is, could this official departure from national environmental policy be part of a secret concession sold to the Chinese by the usual suspects?

Is there a danger that title to or rights in other state assets will be or have been transferred to someone like Anil Agarwal or the Guptas, now that the latter have been flushed out of South Africa? It is a reasonable question, patriotic even, given that Uganda is a veteran of cartoonish business deals.

Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated.

A recent Department of Justice statement revealed the modus operandi for looting state assets employed by predator “investors” and their local agents when it charged one Patrick Ho with bribing the Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, in return for assorted business favours for a Chinese state entity. These costly concessions included, but were not limited to, direct access to the President (resulting in) extended tax holidays, free land by the square kilometer, forests, transfers of public machinery and plants on promises of future payments after they become profitable, and so on. It is in the public interest that Parliament investigates the sustainability of Uganda’s entire debt burden and what the country stands to lose in the event of a default.

Restitution of control

The process of recovery from this parlous state will not be easy. Taking South Africa as an example, a state under the control of regime stalwarts and foreign divestors – the Gupta brothers – it took the constant coordinated efforts of the Economic Freedom Fighters to oust ex-President Jacob Zuma by: a) keeping the public informed about the inner workings of the regime; and b) naming the perpetrators. Working within the law, the EFF rejected attempts to normalise state capture by repeatedly bringing government business in Parliament to a halt. The resulting international spotlight on South Africa made Zuma’s position untenable. He resigned days after he was unable to make a last State of the Nation address.

Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated. Increasingly elaborate state functions, like the Budget Speech, the State of the Nation address and Independence and Heroes day celebrations belie the desperate realities.

Meanwhile, envoys from complicit countries continue to make high-profile visits to Ugandan government officials, even those implicated in financial scandals. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund churn out evaluation reports deliberately fabricating achievements and downplaying the impact of failures in administrative and economic reforms. Concrete examples can be found in the evaluation of the Economic and Financial Management Programme, the Public Service Performance Enhancement Programme and the Education Sector Adjustment Credit. [1]

Until the Ugandan Parliament recognises the capture of the state for what it is, and by whom, and becomes serious about scrutinising public debt, Uganda is going nowhere.

[1] For records of misleading World Bank reports on Ugandan projects, see Mary Serumaga, The case for repudiation of Uganda’s public debt, 8 December 2017 by Mary Serumaga published by the Committee for Repudiation of Illegitimate Debt.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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

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

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

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

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

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

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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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