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MOTHER OF THE NATION: Saint and Sinner

11 min read.

In this second of a three-part series, ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE examines the controversy surrounding the murder of Moeketsi Seipei, popularly known as Stompie, which was blamed on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. While recent evidence has exonerated Madikizela-Mandela of the killing, the Stompie affair continues to haunt the legacy of this iconic anti-apartheid activist who touched the lives of millions. 

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MOTHER OF THE NATION: Saint and Sinner
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‘‘They set up my father as the saint and set up my mother as the sinner,’’ Zindzi Mandela is quoted saying about her famous parents in Pascale Lamche’s film Winnie.

Of all front-row ANC freedom fighters – men and women – Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was singled out as the only leader to appear before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in her personal capacity, where she was implored by Desmond Tutu o apologise to the country for whatever might have gone wrong under her watch. Tutu had argued then that her confession would be good for the country.

The ANC employed the use of violence during the anti-apartheid struggle, including deploying bombs in strategic government installations, some of which exploded and killed the wrong targets. It was widely held – and as stated by ANC stalwart Ahmed Kathrada during a BBC HardTalk interview – that some bombings were carried out by unruly ANC cadres. These crimes were pegged not on individuals but on the ANC, which sent senior representatives to the TRC to either explain and defend its position or to apologise. The same collective leniency of being represented by the ANC was not extended to Madikizela-Mandela. The liberation sins attributed to her and those around her were placed squarely at her feet, prominent among them being the 1989 killing of 14-year-old Moeketsi “Stompie” Seipei, who was suspected of being a police informer.

‘‘The one person who kept the fire burning when everyone was petrified,’’ Madikizela-Mandela said of her essential if lonely and thankless role in the anti-apartheid struggle in Lamche’s film, a moment in which moment her eyes got watery. ‘‘And I didn’t blame them because those dark apartheid forces were killing our people like flies. I didn’t blame them. When sometimes I would shoot that fist alone, and they were too petrified… then they put me on trial before the TRC, and Desmond Tutu sat there judging me… judging me….’’

Stompie had been a marked young radical activist in what was the then Orange Free State, the province where Madikizela-Mandela had been banished to in 1977. After participating in a student protest, he and his comrades were arrested and heavily tortured by the apartheid police. Upon their release, Ace Magashule – who is the current ANC Secretary General and who was himself a young ANC activist in the Free State at the time – organised for the evacuation of Stompie and his other teenage comrades. He found them a safe haven in Soweto, Johannesburg, where Madikizela-Mandela had established herself as the undisputed leader of the liberation struggle.

Not too far away from Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home was the residence of Paul Verryn, a bishop who offered sanctuary to Stompie and his comrades. At the time, Madikizela-Mandela was surrounded by the Mandela United Football Club – a footloose group of young activists who alternated between freedom fighters and an untamed group of area boys who terrorised anyone who did not ascribe to their beliefs. It was at Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home – where tens of young activists streamed in and out, seeking guidance and support – that Ace Magashule taught Stompie how to use an AK47 and how to deploy a grenade. Such were the precarious prevailing circumstances. They were in the middle of an armed struggle against apartheid.

On the night when Stompie’s body was found not too far away from Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home, he and three of his comrades had been picked up from Verryn’s residence by members of the Mandela United Football Club after allegations that the bishop had sexually assaulted the young activists surfaced. At the end of the night, Stompie’s three colleagues went back to the bishop’s home. It is believed the three were allowed to return to Verryn’s residence either because they had given credence to the sexual assault claims and Stompie had not substantiated the allegations, or because Stompie was suspected to have been a secret police informer planted in their midst. Stompie’s death would remain an albatross around Madikizela-Mandela neck for decades, until Pascale Lamche’s film seemed to decisively exonerate her.

For a long time throughout the 1990s, Madikizela-Mandela found it near impossible to exonerate herself from accusations that she had either killed Stompie herself or given orders for his killing. That she had publicly endorsed the use of “matches and necklaces” to liberate South Africa – a euphemism for placing a tyre around a person and lighting it up – played into the narrative that she was the de facto leader of a ragtag militia that embraced vigilantism.

As future investigations revealed – and as shown in Pascale Lamche’s film – Jerry Richardson, the Mandela United Football Club coach who served as Madikizela-Mandela’s bodyguard and who was convicted in 1990 for killing Stompie, was found to have committed the murder for personal reasons. Unlike his earlier assertions that he had received instructions from Madikizela-Mandela, Richardson later confessed to having been a police informer himself, thereby resorting to killing Stompie, who had in fact found out that Richardson was indeed a police informer. At the time – and as revealed by various apartheid security officials – there had been a well-orchestrated smear campaign against Madikizela-Mandela that was aimed at eroding her moral credibility as an ANC leader.

For a long time throughout the 1990s, Madikizela-Mandela found it near impossible to exonerate herself from accusations that she had either killed Stompie herself or given orders for his killing. That she had publicly endorsed the use of “matches and necklaces” to liberate South Africa – a euphemism for placing a tyre around a person and lighting it up – played into the narrative that she was the de facto leader of a ragtag militia that embraced vigilantism.

Paul Erasmus, a former Security Branch official, recently spoke to a Johannesburg reporter about how Madikizela-Mandela was under complete surveillance and how the apartheid state ran a well-oiled character assassination campaign against her. This is corroborated in Lamche’s film by Vic McPherson, an operative of the state’s Covert Strategic Communications (Stratcom), who confessed to working in cahoots with at least 40 journalists in executing psychological warfare on Madikizela-Mandela, a campaign that was sanctioned by South Africa’s then president P.W. Botha. This included the making of a vile documentary shown on 40 American TV channels, which resulted in Madikizela-Mandela being declared an international terrorist in the United States.

Erasmus spoke of how whenever Madikizela-Mandela attended a meeting where alcohol was served or consumed, state agents would quickly spread word – whether true or false – that she had overindulged and misbehaved. This misinformation would be carried strategically on both local and international media platforms for maximum effect. These distorted and embellished media reports were also targeted at creating distrust and planting seeds of discord within the ANC. Whether the courts acquitted her of whatever she was accused of or not, Madikizela-Mandela’s name would continue to be dragged in the mud in what was a well laid out public perception war.

‘‘I would get first grade intelligence from Soweto,’’ Erasmus told the reporter. ‘‘Winnie’s house was bugged. She was under continuous surveillance. The entire soccer club and literally everyone who surrounded Winnie were Security Branch informers… so everything Mama Winnie did was conveyed to me. My job was to sift and work the formula and get the stuff out.’’

In their pursuit to curtail the meteoric rise and moral credibility of one of the most prolific anti-apartheid forces within South Africa, the state infiltrated Madikizela-Mandela’s environment by whatever means possible. As is the case in such operations, those picked as informers may or may not have known they were being used to fight the enemy’s war, since part of the recruitment of informers is done through third parties with whom those around Madikizela-Mandela would innocently share information, not knowing it would get transmitted to the apartheid state.

‘‘I am telling you this as a fact,’’ Erasmus continued. ‘‘They were all working for the Security Branch, including Winnie’s aide de camp at the time… The deaths started when one found out about the other, and Jerry (Stompie’s convicted killer) went as far as admitting this in court…’’

According to Erasmus, the disinformation campaign was targeted at neutralising certain radical elements within the ANC, starting with Chris Hani and Madikizela-Mandela as prime targets. Hani had been the highly popular and charismatic commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe – the ANC’s fighting unit – as well as Secretary General of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which for a long time has remained an ideological alliance partner of the ANC. He was assassinated in cold blood by a lone gunman on the morning of April 10, 1993 as he walked back to his house after picking the day’s newspapers in the company of his daughter, who witnessed the assassination.

There were fears that South Africa would erupt into a civil war following Hani’s death, first because his killing seemed like a means to clear the ANC of hardliners who were popular with the masses but who did not believe in making compromises with the apartheid state, and second because his troops, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, were still armed at the time. Nelson Mandela – whose on-the-ground popularity was always compared to that of the militant Hani (who was seen as a probable future president) – had to address the country that evening and call for calm. With the magnetic Hani out of the way, Madikizela-Mandela remained the one dangerous loose cannon for the apartheid regime. They went after her hard.

‘‘We couldn’t attribute it to the enemy completely,’’ Madikizela-Mandela said of Hani’s murder in Pascale Lamche’s film, suggesting that his murder might also be the work of those who objected to Hani’s overt opposition to giving too many concessions to the apartheid regime during the negotiations with the ANC following Mandela’s release from prison. ‘‘When he was killed, one of the hopes of the country was gone. Here was a man who led the military wing of the ANC. We literally worshipped Chris Hani. We dreamt of a South Africa where he would be president one day.’’

Nelson Mandela – whose on-the-ground popularity was always compared to that of the militant Hani (who was seen as a probable future president) – had to address the country that evening and call for calm. With the magnetic Hani out of the way, Madikizela-Mandela remained the one dangerous loose cannon for the apartheid regime. They went after her hard.

George Fivas, who was South Africa’s police commissioner between 1995 and 1999 – around the time when investigations into Stompie’s murder were reopened under the ANC government – came out recently to categorically refute the allegations that Madikizela-Mandela was complicit in Stompie’s murder. These and other claims prompted speculation that the ANC was trying to nail Madikizela-Mandela for the killing, thereby incapacitating her politically within the organisation.

Sydney Mfumadi, South Africa’s Minister for Safety and Security between 1994 and 1999, who served under Nelson Mandela and under whose ministry the police service fell, has since come out to refute claims that the ANC had anything to do with the reopening of the investigation into Stompie’s murder, a claim that Fivaz supports.

‘‘A lot of people still say Winnie killed Stompie,’’ an ageing Fivas told a reporter at his Johannesburg private security consultancy office. ‘‘Somebody is still feeding the international media the story. I am telling you, after a proper investigation we never found anything to substantiate that claim… There was no evidence to implicate Winnie in Stompie’s murder.’’

According to Fivaz, when Madikizela-Mandela thanked him for exonerating her of Stompie’s murder during the TRC hearings, he told her, “You must understand I was not here to do you a favour. I was here to basically tell the TRC what I know as the gospel truth.’’

‘‘A lot of people still say Winnie killed Stompie,’’ an ageing Fivas told a reporter at his Johannesburg private security consultancy office. ‘‘Somebody is still feeding the international media the story. I am telling you, after a proper investigation we never found anything to substantiate that claim… There was no evidence to implicate Winnie in Stompie’s murder.’’

****

There is no denying that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – like most revolutionaries of her time – was provoked into militancy. The times demanded it, the cause required it, and the enemy necessitated it.

Nothing captures this more aptly than Madikizela-Mandela’s own words when she stated, ‘‘I am a product of the masses of my people and the product of my enemy.’’ The fact that Nelson Mandela founded Umkhonto we Sizwe – the military wing of the ANC – is usually treated as an inconvenient footnote by those who seek to paint him as the patron saint of peace. Yet Mandela’s own militancy before his imprisonment was a reflection of how desperate the times were. Apartheid in all its forms and shapes was a violently dehumanising system of government that necessitated full blown warfare as its black South African subjects fought back to reclaim their humanity. Madikizela-Mandela, just like her former husband, was therefore both a war-time general and a peacetime general, adjusting accordingly with the times and circumstances.

What many forget is how violent South Africa was at the time. The April 1979 death by hanging of one of South Africa’s most celebrated liberation struggle heroes, the 22-year-old Solomon Mahlangu, is a clear indication of how volatile things were as the ANC and others like Robert Sobukwe’s Pan African Congress (PAC) fought apartheid. Mahlangu and two of his comrades got busted by a policeman in Johannesburg as they tried boarding a public transport van, each of them carrying heavy suitcases full of pamphlets, guns and explosives. As the policeman grabbed one of the suitcases, an AK47 and a hand grenade fell out. The three comrades ran in different directions, with Mahlangu and Mondy Motloung deciding to hide in a warehouse. They got accosted and badly beaten, resulting in Motloung suffering severe brain damage, which made it impossible for him to eventually stand trial alongside Mahlangu.

Two individuals got shot and killed in the warehouse as the policeman charged after Mahlangu and Motloung. Their killings was blamed on the young revolutionaries during trial. Charged for murder and terrorism in 1977, Mahlangu was hanged in 1979 after his appeal was rejected. His last words – ‘‘My blood will nourish the tree that will bear the fruits of freedom. Tell my people that I love them. They must continue the fight.’’ – remained a liberation rallying call in South Africa. His death remains one of the bitter memories of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Apartheid was a monster that also spawned black-on-black violence. While discussing a chapter in his PhD thesis on Black Youth Politics in 2014, South African MP and spokesman of the far-left opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, referred to an incident in June 1993. Ishmael Bujozi, a foot soldier in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), was being buried at the Everton Cemetery in Johannesburg. His death had resulted from the IFP’s rivalry with the ANC, where youths from both parties took turns attacking each other. An hour after the burial – when Bujozi’s family and IFP members had left – Bujozi’s body was exhumed and burnt by local ANC youths. News got to his family and the IFP, who immediately planned for a second burial. During the second funeral, a huge crowd of ANC youths from nearby settlements gathered outside the cemetery. Later that week, Bujozi’s body was exhumed once again and hanged on the cemetery fence, where it stayed for days.

Ndlozi wondered what death a corpse dies and what the exhumation meant. Did the exhumation reflect on the one who lived in the body, the one who buried it, or the one who exhumed it? In his view, the exhumation was a violation of the sanctity of the graveyard. Nothing was sacred, nothing was safe.

It is through this lens that we must to look at members of the Mandela United Football Club who became both victims and perpetrators of the same kind of violence. It was a stormy time, and Madikizela-Mandela, with all her good intentions, found herself at the centre of a maelstrom.

****

On Tuesday April 10, Stompie’s mother, Joyce Seipei arrived at Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home to pass her condolences to the bereaved family. She was accompanied by ANC Women’s League officials from the Free State. After meeting Madikizela-Mandela’s two daughters, Zindzi and Zenani, Mrs. Seipei walked out of the home accompanied by her son’s teenage-hood comrade, the ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule, who first brought Stompie from the Orange Free State to Soweto. Looking on was ANC spokesman Pule Mabe.

It was a stormy time, and Madikizela-Mandela, with all her good intentions, found herself at the centre of a maelstrom.

On Sunday April 8, following Madikizela-Mandela’s passing – Mrs. Seipei had spoken to the South African media from her Free State province home. She told the media that she didn’t believe that Madikizela-Mandela was involved in the murder of her son. She remembered Stompie as a brilliant and courageous young man whose untimely death had devastated her. It all felt surreal.

‘‘The bones of my own younger brothers are still in Tanzania,’’ Magashule, who was present, said, referring to the tens of ANC fighters who died in training camps across Africa. ‘‘I am the one who recruited them and took them to Tanzania. I recruited my cousins. They too died in the struggle. The bones of Stompie’s comrades are still exiled in Angola. We all knew it was a matter of life and death.’’

‘‘A lot of comrades have died because of lies,’’ Magashule said, recalling the turbulent times when being called an impimpi – meaning traitor – was equated to a death sentence. There having been allegations of tens of ANC cadres having faced firing squads inside ANC training camps on suspicion of being spies for the enemy. ‘‘The ANC was highly infiltrated. Nelson Mandela asked us not to share this information publicly because it could have crippled the organisation.’’

The footage of Joyce Seipei eulogising Madikizela-Mandela – the woman who was for a long time accused of killing Stompie – is the sort of image that would make sceptics wonder whether Mrs. Seipei had been subdued into partaking in an ANC self-cleansing exercise. Yet there was a sense that this was no public relations stunt – that Stompie’s mother knew all along that Madikizela-Mandela was innocent of her son’s murder.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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Politics

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

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

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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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