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TAMING THE INTERNET: The good, the bad and the ugly parts of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018

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TAMING THE INTERNET: The good, the bad and the ugly parts of the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018
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Imagine a world without the Internet.

Now imagine a world where you are not free to say what you want to and where your social media posts could land you in jail. There are those who would love this world. To them, the Internet is encumbered with bigoted, sadistic and misogynistic speech that must be reined in.

Conversely, there are those who see any attempts to regulate online conduct as impinging on their freedom of speech. They believe that once you open the gates for government control, you risk political control and ultimately the death of online democracy.

A third school of thought is that you can never tame the Internet. John Gilmore’s famous mantra comes to mind: “The net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” No matter the laws and policies put in place, bad actors will always find a way to be there.

Regulation of online conduct has now hit close to home. This week, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018. Here is what it provides.

The expected

There are offences that are standard in cybercrime legislation across the globe. In Kenya’s case, this legislation was way overdue considering that Kenyans were relying on outdated statutes contained in the 1948 Penal Code and the 1998 Kenya Information and Communication Act to try digital crimes.

What most would simply refer to as “hacking” is now covered by the offences of unauthorised access, access with intent to commit a further offence, unauthorised interference and unauthorised interception. Hacking critical information infrastructure (very important public facilities) amounts to cyber espionage, which carries a hefty penalty – 20 years in prison and/or up to Sh10 million in fines.

Spying for Kenya’s enemies is also covered under cyber espionage. Each of these offences requires different prerequisites and carry a different sentence. Other variations of these offences are covered under computer fraud and computer forgery. It is laudable that the Act has included the use of social engineering in the list of offences.

Trading in hacking tools, password crackers and social engineering tools is now an offence. Possession of such tools with the intent to use them to commit an offence can earn one a fine of Sh10 million or ten years in jail. Nevertheless, the Act protects “white hat” hackers (computer security specialists who deliberately break into protected systems or networks to assess their security).

Disclosure of a password or access code without permission could lead to a three-year stint in jail, a Sh5 million fine or both. If any of these offences are committed on a protected computer system (government, banks, telecommunications or witness protection systems), the perpetrator gets an enhanced penalty. He or she may be imprisoned for two decades, pay a Sh25 million fine or both.

Sections on mutual assistance and international cooperation in the investigation of cybercrime are commonplace yet necessary given the borderless nature of the Internet. What the Act lacks is an express condition that requests for investigation from other countries that will be subjected to the same legal procedures as local investigations.

Disclosure of a password or access code without permission could lead to a three-year stint in jail, a Sh5 million fine or both. If any of these offences are committed on a protected computer system (government, banks, telecommunications or witness protection systems), the perpetrator gets an enhanced penalty. He or she may be imprisoned for two decades, pay a Sh25 million fine or both.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a complete Kenyan law without the establishment of yet another government body, so the National Computer and Cybercrimes Coordination Committee and its secretariat were created. The Committee has heavy representation by national government agencies. However, the absence of county government representation in the Committee is worrying as it is assumed that counties have no role to play in cybersecurity.

The progressive

The Internet comes with its own share of ills, which, if unchecked, can affect vulnerable groups in society. The natural reaction by legislatures the world over is to over-legislate on online conduct in the hope that the law could re-engineer social order to counter the ever increasing incidents of anarchy. However, a balance needs to be maintained between laws that could restore this order and laws that would have a chilling effect on online freedom. Here are some of the enacted offences that could be considered progressive.

Cyber harassment

The definition of this offence is wide enough to cover cyber stalking, cyber bullying, doxing, trolling and dogpiling. The determining factor is conduct that causes apprehension, detrimentally affects a person, or is indecent and gross. This offence carries with it a Sh20 million fine, a ten-year prison term or both.

Victims of ongoing cyber harassment will now be able to obtain court orders to put an end to the harassment. This order can be obtained at any time of the day, even outside court working hours. Since cyber harassment is often carried out by trolls hiding behind pseudo accounts, a court may order online service providers to provide the perpetrators’ subscriber information, including their name, address, location, email address and phone number.

The framing of the offence, however, presents ambiguity. It is not clear what amounts to “detrimentally affects a person” and “indecent and gross”. These are subjective judgements and could be used to undermine freedom of expression.

Child pornography

Children need overzealous protection online from perverts and sometimes from themselves. It is an offence to produce child pornography and publish it. Further, downloading, distributing, exhibiting, selling and “making child pornography available in any way” or simply having it on one’s device also amounts to an offence calling for a Sh20 million fine, 25 years in jail or both. Any material showing a child engaging in sexual conduct or a similarly poor depiction amounts to child pornography. An example of this would be the photos recently shared under the #IfikieWazazi trend.

The ambiguous

Clarity in the letter of the law is key. It is equally important that laws prescribing the elements of an offence do so objectively using conduct-specific words. This not only gives a clear guide to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions as to when they should bring a criminal charge but also reduces the risk of such a law being declared unconstitutional. Precision is one of the areas where the Act falls short. There is a likelihood that most charges brought under it will be terminated prematurely.

The offence of identity theft and impersonation forbids the fraudulent and dishonest use of the password or unique identification feature of another person. However, the Act offers no definition of what constitutes “unique identification features”. And what amounts to “dishonest” use? Is it possible that opening a social media account in the name of another person could now be considered impersonation? Parody accounts, which are used for social commentary, may be at risk.

Clarity in the letter of the law is key. It is equally important that laws prescribing the elements of an offence do so objectively using conduct-specific words. This not only gives a clear guide to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions as to when they should bring a criminal charge but also reduces the risk of such a law being declared unconstitutional. Precision is one of the areas where the Act falls short. There is a likelihood that most charges brought under it will be terminated prematurely.

It is now an offence to hide information that was delivered to you by mistake. Take an email for example. The content of the email may not be relevant to you. However, it is impossible to tell that you were not the intended recipient. The intention of such a provision is unclear.

Unlawfully destroying messages is also an offence. However, the Act does not spell out what amounts to unlawful destruction, which makes the provision baffling.

Section 37 makes it an offence to distribute obscene or intimate images of another person. Use of general words such as “obscene” and “intimate” in laws that limit freedom of expression is unconstitutional. The intention may have been to ban revenge pornography or posting of personal photographs without the subject’s consent. Regrettably, we may not realise this protection due to the ambiguous language used in the Act. Failure to restrict this offence to instances where photos are uploaded without consent means that it is generally illegal to post pornographic material online in Kenya, unless the subject of the material posts it.

In a surprising twist, the section on child pornography makes it illegal to download, distribute and disseminate pornographic material or making it available in any way. Could this mean that it is now illegal to watch pornographic material in Kenya even where the actors are adults? Will search engines such as Google be held culpable for “making available” pornographic material? As this is a section on child pornography, is it safer to assume that this was an error in drafting or was this deliberate?

The borderline unconstitutional

There are some sections in the Act that not only make good fodder for public debate but also raise constitutional issues.

Fake news

Any law banning certain types of speech finds itself in conflict with the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of opinion and expression and of the press. While freedom of expression is not absolute, its limitation can only be to the extent allowed by the Constitution.

The Act has been nicknamed the “Fake News Law”. Two sections in the Act have earned it this moniker. One criminalises “false publications” and the other outlaws “publication of false information”. Is this a calculated ploy or a play on semantics? In both cases, the Act offers no definition of the word “publish”. It will be interesting to see the interpretation adopted by the courts.

The first of these, Section 22, makes it an offence to publish fake news with the intention to deceive people who may treat it as authentic. This offence carries with it a Sh5 million fine, two years in the slammer or both. An obvious dilemma is how the prosecutors will prove that the information was published with the intention to deceive.

The Act has been nicknamed the “Fake News Law”. Two sections in the Act have earned it this moniker. One criminalises “false publications” and the other outlaws “publication of false information”. Is this a calculated ploy or a play on semantics? In both cases, the Act offers no definition of the word “publish”. It will be interesting to see the interpretation adopted by the courts.

There is, however, a rider in Section 22(2) that states that freedom of expression does not extend to speech that amounts to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech, advocacy for ethnic hatred or discrimination, or fake news that negatively affects the rights and reputations of others. These are the exceptions allowed under Article 33 of the Constitution. Such a qualification is necessary for any law that purports to limit a constitutional freedom. The import of this is that any law restricting speech that does not fall into these categories is unconstitutional.

What this means, therefore, is that fake news is only an offence if it amounts to propaganda for war, incitement to violence, hate speech, advocacy for ethnic hatred, advocacy for discrimination, or if it negatively affects the rights and reputations of others. A person charged with the offence of false publication has the right to challenge the charge before a constitutional court if their speech does not fall under the forbidden categories.

The second fake news offence, Section 23, criminalises fake news that is calculated to cause or results in panic, chaos or violence. It also condemns fake news that is likely to discredit the reputation of a person. This offence attracts a Sh5 million fine, a ten-year sentence or both. This section runs afoul of the Constitution. For one, public order is no longer an acceptable limitation to the freedom of expression. This is because words such as panic and chaos are subjective. How do you determine panic or chaos? In addition, the High Court decided last year that an offence prescribing criminal defamation is unconstitutional. This section is likely to suffer a similar fate.

Government surveillance

Every person has the constitutional right to privacy, which means that they have the right not to have their person, home or property searched, to not to have information relating to their family or private affairs unnecessarily revealed and to not to have the privacy of their communications infringed.

However, it is sometimes necessary to impeach the right to privacy, especially to allow for investigation of criminal activity. What the Constitution requires is that such invasion of privacy be carried out according to clear procedures set out in law. The law that allows invasion of privacy by the government must be clear as to the extent of the limitation of the right to privacy. The investigation procedures in the Act feature some questionable provisions.

If a police officer wants to search or seize a computer in the investigation of an offence, they must obtain a search warrant from a court of law. The police officers will then make a list of all the information seized and allow one to copy the contents of the computer before taking it away.

ISPs to surrender subscriber information

As part of the investigative procedures, Internet service providers (ISPs) may be directed to submit information on any of its subscribers. This includes the name, address, location, email address and phone number. Further, they may be directed to either collect traffic data (identity of the sender and recipient of an email, its subject lines and size, titles of any attachments, websites visited by a user and the time spent at each website etc.) on behalf of the police or allow the police to tap into the ISP system in order to do so. Finally, ISPs may be directed to record the content of a subscriber’s communication and surrender it to the police or, alternatively, allow police officers to dock into the ISP’s system and collect the content data.

All these require court orders. This intermediate step of requiring judicial approval is a necessary check on police power. However, there is a catch. Where police officers consider an investigation “urgent”, they are allowed to bypass the courts and directly issue a notice to the ISP to surrender information concerning any of its subscribers. This is a worrying exception that is prone to abuse. It is possible for police officers to cunningly term all their investigations as urgent and go straight to the ISPs without involving the courts.

ISPs must comply with any police directives as failure to do so would amount to an offence. This is a blatant disregard of the right to privacy, and could be used as a form of retaliation against anti-government entities or individuals. The Act bestows too much authority on investigators/police officers, leaving Internet users vulnerable to the whims of the state or powerful individuals.

Where police officers consider an investigation “urgent”, they are allowed to bypass the courts and directly issue a notice to the ISP to surrender information concerning any of its subscribers. This is a worrying exception that is prone to abuse. It is possible for police officers to cunningly term all their investigations as urgent and go straight to the ISPs without involving the courts.

The unnecessary

 The approach taken by this Act is to criminalise all unpleasant online conduct, so much so that it has encroached on the preserve of civil law, which will lead to the overburdening of an already under-resourced Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Worse still, the drafting language in many of the sections is vague, which could lead to the dismissal of cases brought under the Act.

The aim of criminal law should be to protect the general interests of the public, not to serve private interests. Where personal loss is occasioned, civil law offers perfect remedies. To go a step further and provide for compensation orders, as Section 45 does, is to usurp the role of civil courts, which are best placed to award damages. Try as we might, it is impossible to restore moral virtue via criminal legislation.

The aim of criminal law should be to protect the general interests of the public, not to serve private interests. Where personal loss is occasioned, civil law offers perfect remedies.

Cybersquatting

Cybersquatting – the practice of registering domain names, especially of well-known companies, in the hope of re-selling them at a profit – is an offence punishable by a Sh200,000 fine, a two-year imprisonment or both. This would have been best handled under civil law as it raises concerns related to intellectual property and personality rights.

Reversing erroneous payments

More often than not, mobile money users make payments to the wrong recipient. Failure to reverse such erroneous payments is now an offence with a Sh200,000 fine, a two-year imprisonment or both. This is an example of criminalising conduct arising out of private affairs. It would have been more prudent to require a refund policy from the platforms that operate the mobile money service.

Reporting cyber attacks

Every computer user must now report every cyber attack to the National Computer and Cybercrimes Coordination Committee. Failure to do so is an offence. In fighting cybercrime, cooperation is key. Cooperation is achieved by reporting cyber attacks. This alerts other users of impeding attacks and makes it possible to crowd-source solutions. However, making failure to report such attacks a crime is extreme. In other jurisdictions, only large organisations dealing in large amounts of data and monetary transactions are required to report. Failure to do so is not criminal but attracts administrative fines.

Failure to surrender passwords after employment

This is yet another superfluous offence. At the end of a contract of employment, one should surrender passwords to company computers and access codes. Failure to do so constitutes an offence. This would ordinarily give rise to a civil claim for breach of contract, which makes criminalising of the offence needless. The law is thus encroaching on a matter that is already handled by employers through contracts with their employees.

This is what the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, 2018 provides. I hope that this equips you adequately to participate in public discourse on the Act.

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Mercy Mutemi is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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

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

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

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

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Politics

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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