Over the past two weeks, the world’s media has been transfixed by two images that would have been unthinkable until recently: the image of an American president at war with his G7 allies and another one showing him basking in a delirious bromance with a ruthless North Korean dictator. What does one make of these images, of the deluge of daily news about global developments that are so overwhelming that it’s often hard to keep up, let alone understand?
Besides the twittering outbursts and theatrics of the unpredictable President Donald Trump and the great power rivalries within the teetering Western alliance and with a towering China (which seem to be slipping into fierce trade conflicts), world news headlines are dominated by an endless cacophony of catastrophes in various world regions: the endless wars, migration crises, and human rights abuses and atrocities committed by intolerant governments, terrorist organisations, and fundamentalist civil society zealots.
There are, of course, other powerful stories and forces, slow, subterranean and structural, which are upending the current global order with profound consequences for national, regional, and world political economies. They include the rise of dangerous populisms and the recessions of democracy, the generation of unprecedented wealth and deepening inequalities, the development of planetary consciousness and growth of political tribalisms, and the contradictory trajectories of the digital revolution that is simultaneously unleashing remarkable economic productivity and social connectivity while threatening to overwhelm humanity with the transformative powers of artificial intelligence, robotics, and the Internet.
I would like to suggest that some of the current global developments that flood the media, especially the growing tensions among and within the major global and regional powers and their respective alliances, can fruitfully be understood in the context of hegemonic shifts and contestations that occur periodically in world history. Hegemony comprises both hard power (military and economic dominance) and soft power (cultural and ideological supremacy). During moments of hegemonic transitions, intra-hegemonic rivalries and struggles between the declining hegemons and rising hegemons tend to intensify, often leading to regional and global wars, both hot and cold.
As a historian, I am only too aware that history doesn’t repeat itself in exact or predictable patterns, but neither is any moment including ours immune from the familiar rhythms of historical change. This is to suggest the need to go beyond the pronouncements or shenanigans of particular leaders, or momentary trends that may seem temporarily consequential but end up sinking in the quicksand of history without much trace. Students of world history and the world system have identified various conjunctures in the constructions, contestations, and transitions of regional and global hegemonies going back millennia.
Moments of hegemonic shifts are often triggered or accompanied by economic and structural crises and escalating political and ideological competition and conflict. In the field of economic history, which is my specialty, there are fascinating historical accounts of economic crises going back millennia and some of the hegemonic upheavals they engendered, reflected, and reinforced. A few recent examples will suffice.
In the late 19th century, there was the shift in economic and military power in Europe, which was then the centre of the world system – from Britain as the world’s first industrial power to Germany following the latter’s unification in 1871. This shift occurred during, and was exacerbated by, the long global depression of 1873-1896. At the same time, the world drifted towards the New Imperialism, expressed geographically in the colonial conquest of Africa and parts of Asia, and geopolitically in the outbreak of World War I.
Moments of hegemonic shifts are often triggered or accompanied by economic and structural crises and escalating political and ideological competition and conflict.
Western Europe emerged from World War I devastated and exhausted, paving the way for the rise of two new hegemonic powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The two countries’ march to superpower status was accelerated by the Great Depression of 1929-1939 and World War II, notwithstanding the economic hardships the Depression unleashed in the USA, and the trail of destruction left by WWII in the USSR. The decolonisation of Africa and Asia occurred in the maelstrom of the new global order and emergence of the Cold War between American-led and Soviet-led geopolitical alliances.
This underscores the fact that moments of hegemonic transitions create both dangers and opportunities for the peripheries. The hegemonic shift of the late 19th century among the European powers brought Africa and Asia the historic disaster of colonisation while that of the mid-20th century by the huge subcontinental states of the USA and USSR brought them the momentous promises of decolonisation. What will the current reconfiguration in global hegemonies portend for Africa?
At the heart of the current conjuncture is the emergence of a multipolar world, following the demise of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the erosion of the United States hegemony as the sole superpower since the early 2000s. It seems almost quaint to recall Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist thesis on the “End of History”—the conceit that the great ideological struggles of history were over, vanquished by Western liberalism—which was proclaimed in the midst of American euphoria following the collapse of “actually existing socialism”. 9/11 and the rise of politicised religious fundamentalisms seriously dented this hollow ideological gloating. The rise of China and other emerging economies that claimed a growing share of the unevenly developed and highly unequal global economy put more nails in the coffin of American and Western supremacy.
At the heart of the current conjuncture is the emergence of a multipolar world, following the demise of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the erosion of the United States hegemony as the sole superpower since the early 2000s.
On the day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, I wrote an essay on my blog, The Zeleza Post (closed in 2012), which was subsequently included in the collection of essays, Barack Obama and African Diasporas (2009). In the essay I stated that the challenges facing the new administration “are immense indeed: ending two foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have depleted the nation of treasure and trust…; managing the economic crisis and administering an effective stimulus package that will halt the economic recession and restore growth; expanding access to health care and improving the quality of education and overcoming the inequities of the prison industrial complex that have devastated African American and other minority communities; pursuing sound and sustainable domestic and global environmental policies; and promoting smart foreign policies and allegiance to multilateralism. The biggest challenge facing President Obama is how to manage the relative decline of American global supremacy in a world of new and emerging powers…”
The Obama administration tried to manage this challenge through existing multilateral institutions by roping in the emerging economies, championing such important global causes as climate change by signing the Paris Climate Agreement in April 2016, containing nuclear proliferation by signing, in July 2015, the 5+1 Iran nuclear deal (officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the permanent members of the UN + Germany), and trying to contain rising China by creating the Trans-Pacific Partnership that was signed in February 2016.
All these and other domestic and international policies and achievements of the Obama administration have been or are being undone by the Trump administration. This should not come as a surprise. As I wrote on the day after the 2016 election: “It is no prediction to expect that America’s slide into global ignominy will accelerate under Trump’s predictably inept leadership and the country’s apparently irreconcilable tribal polarisations…Obama’s legacy will be dismantled by his nemesis…. For the world at large, Trump’s looming presidency elicits different fears, perspectives and expectations. There are fears that postwar internationalism will be upended by isolationism…International trade agreements, the structural face of neoliberal globalization, are under threat from a potentially protectionist administration. The recent global compact on climate change, upon which the very future of humanity and our fragile little planet rests, will face renewed obstacles from one of the world’s greatest polluters. Some predict an apocalypse triggered by the Trump presidency that will lead to the demise of the West as we have known it. Some even doubt the future of the NATO alliance under President Trump with his ‘America First’ doctrine.”
Unfortunately, some of the worst predictions about the Trump presidency have come to pass, whether in terms of undermining domestic institutions and the aura of the presidency itself through wanton corruption, ineptitude, and perverse narcissism, or with regard to international institutions and diplomatic niceties through insufferable bluster, bombast, and boorishness. The proverbial stereotype of the “Ugly American” has become a veritable monstrosity in an American leader who despises allies and adores dictators that have historically threatened American interests or self-image.
But the challenges go beyond Trump. He was elected and channels the ideological impulses and interests, however misguided, of his constituents among the electorate and the establishment—the racism, tribalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, jingoism, and protectionism of the “America First” assault on the world. Those wedded to the rules of the crumbling order are deeply alarmed, even apocalyptic. Some hail from the Global South, including Africa. But as one Indian academic noted on Al-Jazeera, the Western order under assault from the Trump administration was not constructed to benefit the Global South, so it’s rather rich for the wealthy countries of Western Europe to expect support or solidarity from the emerging economies of the Global South in the intra-hegemonic battles of EuroAmerica.
But the challenges go beyond Trump. He was elected and channels the ideological impulses and interests, however misguided, of his constituents among the electorate and the establishment—the racism, tribalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, jingoism, and protectionism of the “America First” assault on the world.
The Trump administration’s contempt for America’s allies was on full display at the G7 Summit and the Summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. To the indignation of the six leaders of the G7, Trump refused to sign the final agreement, claiming annoyance at the statement by the Canadian Prime Minister that he would not allow his country to be pushed around. The bone of contention in President Trump’s political and economic tantrums has ostensibly been about trade, the misguided belief that the USA has been exploited by its major trading partners, and that it can easily win any subsequent trade war.
In reality, at stake is the viability of the post-World War II order that the USA itself created and has disproportionately benefitted from. It reflects a beleaguered hegemon unable to control the world it has bestrode for seventy years as a superpower and as an undisputed colossus since the demise of the Soviet Union. That world has been vanishing, and as often happens in such moments of declining hegemony, the padded ideological gloves of soft power give way to the bare-knuckled fists of hard power, which only succeeds in accelerating hegemonic decline.
The challenges and ills confronting the world evident in the current intra-hegemonic rivalries and conflicts in the Western Alliance, in the face of rising new hegemons, especially China, are of course not an isolated American phenomenon. Nativism, nationalism, and distrust of the elites, experts, and the establishment have gone global, giving succour to populists, strongmen and dictators, even in so-called democracies.
Overarching the intra-hegemonic tensions in the Western Alliance is the escalating inter-hegemonic rivalry between the West and China. As the Trump presidency tarnishes the sheen of American democracy, China’s meritocratic model of “selection plus election” for the leadership acquires a new and competing ideological gloss. One Chinese scholar boasts that because of this model, and “despite its many deficiencies, the Chinese polity has delivered the world’s fastest growing economy and has vastly improved the living standards for most Chinese.” The Chinese model of governance and of selecting leaders, he continues, “makes it inconceivable that anyone as weak as George W. Bush or Donald Trump could ever come close to the position of the top leadership.”
Some African commentators are attracted to the Chinese model (which recently resulted in the removal of term limits for China’s leader). They argue that Africa can beneficially borrow from some of the model’s elements, such as the fight against corruption, while others regard it with alarm as “an unwelcome gift for African despots who can now point to China as justification for their authoritarian tendencies”.
Overarching the intra-hegemonic tensions in the Western Alliance is the escalating inter-hegemonic rivalry between the West and China. As the Trump presidency tarnishes the sheen of American democracy, China’s meritocratic model of “selection plus election” for the leadership acquires a new and competing ideological gloss.
Of course, the two current dynamics of intra- and inter- hegemonic struggles are only a part of much wider transformations the contemporary world is undergoing. There are other mega trends that reflect and reinforce the hegemonic shifts addressed in this essay. There’s an avalanche of popular and scholarly studies that provide fascinating (although not always accurate) or compelling diagnoses and prognoses of the global condition that bring hope to some and fear to others. The trends include some already mentioned, such as the apparent erosion of democracy, the rise of populisms, and the growth of global inequalities that feed into the politics of anger and political tribalism. Others include the unfolding economic, social, cultural, and political disruptions of technology and profound demographic changes. Then there are the changing dynamics of the world population marked by ageing populations in some regions, especially in the Global North and even in China, and the youth bulge in others, most dramatically in Africa. There are also the shifting patterns of global migrations, most graphically captured in the death traps across the Mediterranean.
Among the books I’ve particularly enjoyed reading to make sense of our infinitely complex, contradictory, and rapidly changing present (notwithstanding my disagreement with some of their premises, methodologies, or analyses), the following stand out. On the rising recession of democracy, Dambisa Moyo, the renowned Zambian economist, gives us her customary trenchant analysis in her recently published book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth (2018). Other intriguing reflections on the growing global democratic deficits and the destabilising effects of populism, political tribalism, and anger include Yascha Mounk’s, The People Vs. Democracy: How Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (2018), Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die (2018), the riveting Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations (2018) by Amy Chou, and the philosophically sophisticated Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) by Pankaj Mishra.
On wealth and inequality, there’s Thomas Piketty’s brilliant 2013 bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that spans the past 250 years, while Walter Scheidel’s 2017 tome, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, attempts an even more ambitious treatise.
On the impact of technology and the future of humanity, there are the incisive and provocative reflections by Yvan Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017), Rachel Botsman’s Who Can You Trust?: How Technology Brought Us Together and Why It Might Drive Us Apart (2017), Gideon Rose’s The Fourth Industrial Revolution: A Davos Reader (2016), and focusing on my own sector, Robert E. Aoun’s Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Era of Artificial Intelligence (2017).
While demography is not destiny, and given that the ameliorative powers of technology to rescue ageing societies from economic stagnation cannot be underestimated, Africa’s demographic explosion could turn out to be a developmental and geopolitical asset. The continent is expected to have more than 2 billion people by 2050 (25% of the world’s population) and over 4 billion people in 2100 (40% of the world’s population). For this boon to materialise, massive investments need to be made in the development of the human capital of the youth as a matter of urgency – now! – otherwise the continent’s potential demographic dividend will turn into a demographic disaster as uneducated, unskilled, and unemployed youth terrorise their societies into cesspools of impoverishment, insecurity, and instability.
While demography is not destiny, and given that the ameliorative powers of technology to rescue ageing societies from economic stagnation cannot be underestimated, Africa’s demographic explosion could turn out to be a developmental and geopolitical asset.
We live, to use an old cliché, in the best of times and the worst of times. One thing for certain is that massive changes will continue to confront the multiple and intersected worlds of the 21st century, which will be marked, as all historical processes are, by the structures of historical geography and political economy, and the social inscriptions of class, race, ethnicity, gender, and religion.
In this most complex and demanding of times, Pan-Africanism ceases to be an affective good for African countries and peoples and becomes – as its founders and purveyors, from W.E. B. Dubois to Kwame Nkrumah to Thabo Mbeki, always understood – a historical and geopolitical imperative in an era of shifting global hegemonies. African governments, businesses, civil society, intergovernmental agencies, think tanks, and academia must mobilise the continent’s geopolitical thought leaders to properly decipher the implications of this most challenging of global moments in order to minimise its perils and to seize its opportunities.
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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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