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An Ordinary Kenyan and a Predatory Gangster Theology

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An Ordinary Kenyan and a Predatory Gangster Theology
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A few weeks ago, Kenya’s Deputy President, William Ruto, told off those criticising his frequent church harambees by stating that he was “investing in heaven”. “Wengine wananikashifu eti huyu anazunguka kwenye makanisa, eti ninatoa pesa pale na pale, sijui nini… Shauri yao. Mimi nina invest kwa mambo ya mbinguni. Wewe ukitaka kuinvest mahali pengine… si kila mtu ako na uhuru wa kuinvest pahali anataka?”
(“Some people condemn me for going around churches, for donating money here and there. It’s their problem. I’m investing in heavenly matters. If you want to invest elsewhere, it’s your right to do so.”)

A couple of weeks later, Ruto reiterated this message, saying that at least he was investing in heaven – there were others investing in witchcraft.

The Deputy President has carefully crafted an image of a clean-cut, staunch Christian. He is said to be a teetotaller, waking up at 4am daily to pray, and never misses a Sunday service, “despite his busy schedule”. His student days as leader of his university’s Christian Union are frequently invoked as a sign of his commitment to the faith. And, of course, there are the large cash donations (harambees) to many churches.

Ruto’s other public persona is that of a “hustler”. In interviews, he has spoken of his “ordinary” peasant upbringing of herding cows and selling chicken during the weekends and holidays to raise money for family needs.

But in recent years, stubborn questions regarding the source of his vast wealth refuse to go away. Media reports have revealed that Ruto’s known investments include a new residence in Uasin Gishu estimated to be worth Sh1.2 billion, Weston Hotel in Nairobi estimated to be worth Sh2.5 billion, hotels in Mombasa and the Mara worth Sh3 billion, stakes in Amaco Insurance, rental properties in Nairobi and Eldoret, and four helicopters.

The connection between Ruto the public Christian and Ruto the rich/ generous/ corrupt(?) man, is not incidental. If you follow the histories and logics of the Christian project in Kenya – and how it links power and piety – you will arrive at a place where eternal glory is a commercial property, convertible to cash, and tradable like shares in the stock market. You might even arrive at a strange place where brazen pillaging is justified as an actual act of faith.

***

I was 16 when Daniel arap Moi’s KANU party was voted out of office, ushering in a more democratic space for Kenyans. For us watoto wa Nyayo, who had never known any president other than Moi, and who sometimes used Moi as a synonym for the actual noun “president” (like speaking of Uganda: “Museveni is the Moi of Uganda”) it felt euphoric, but also apocalyptic – like we were living out the last days.

The connection between Ruto the public Christian and Ruto the rich/ generous/ corrupt(?) man, is not incidental. If you follow the histories and logics of the Christian project in Kenya – and how it links power and piety – you will arrive at a place where eternal glory is a commercial property, convertible to cash, and tradable like shares in the stock market. You might even arrive at a strange place where brazen pillaging is justified as an actual act of faith.

But I was shaken by the reaction of one of our Christian Union patrons in high school. He was my history teacher, not really that much older than me. He was from Nairobi and made being “saved” look very cool – a popular and well-liked teacher. So I was taken aback when he was visibly devastated by KANU’s loss and spoke in cryptic lamentations about Mwai Kibaki’s NARC government being a very bad mistake for Kenya, a mistake that we would all regret it. He once muttered, quite seriously, that all the words in the dictionary that begin with “narc” have negative connotations – narcotic, narcissist, narcolepsy… This was at a time when young people like us, indeed the whole nation, were all singing the NARC anthem “Unbwogable”.

I watched him maintain a firm allegiance to KANU and Moi all through Kibaki’s two terms of a mixed record – an economic boom marred by corruption and exclusionary politics that erupted into the post-election violence of 2007-8.

But surely KANU/Moi couldn’t have been any better, I would argue with my erstwhile mentor in those years. Moi presided over the brazen pillaging of state institutions that left the economy on its knees and Kenyan families visibly desperate, I would say. He persecuted and locked up dissidents. Moi had torture chambers!

In 2013, KANU 2.0 was back in the form of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. I would run into my former teacher less frequently now, but his commitment to chama cha baba na mama was unshaken, and he celebrated Uhuru’s win in 2013. He still wore Moi’s portrait as a lapel pin – that portrait that used to appear on our currency notes and froze Baba Moi’s face as an improbably young(ish) man.

My former teacher said that Kenya had “wasted ten years” by rejecting Uhuru in 2002. I pushed him to explain. I really wanted to understand this. The reason for his unwavering loyalty, he said, was that Moi was the president of the “ordinary Kenyan.”

“Moi travelled all around this country. People saw him, and spoke to him, not like Kenyatta 1 who was always holed up in one of the State Houses or at his home in Gatundu,” he said to me. “Moi was an ordinary Kenyan.”

That reason has always felt deflating and inadequate. That’s it? I would think. You’re okay with Goldenberg, Nyayo House torture chambers, the collapse of dozens of parastatals, the decimation of our universities, public decay and dilapidation because Moi was a mwananchi?

I’ve spent years turning it over and over again in my mind. What does it mean to be an Ordinary Kenyan? Who among us is not an Ordinary Kenyan? How does one acquire, and maintain, Ordinary Kenyanness? And once you are an Ordinary Kenyan, what does that get you? And what can you get away with?

***
In one sense, Ruto’s “hustler” identity is appealing to this Ordinary Kenyanness. He is the “son of a peasant”, it is said, never mind that all of Kenya’s former presidents (Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki) were also sons of peasants. By grasping onto that symbolic mwananchi status, Ruto is tapping into the tenuousness of our national identity, and appearing to give it substance, even to personify it. He is giving form to our unspoken assumptions of who can be a Kenyan.

I’ve spent years turning it over and over again in my mind. What does it mean to be an Ordinary Kenyan? Who among us is not an Ordinary Kenyan? How does one acquire, and maintain, Ordinary Kenyanness? And once you are an Ordinary Kenyan, what does that get you? And what can you get away with?

This is not a trivial question. An intriguing study by Michael Bratton and Mwangi S. Kimenyi wanted to find out the relationship between voters’ ethnic identity, national identity and voting behaviour. Their survey’s initial findings were that 80% of Kenyans do not prioritise their ethnic identity when describing themselves; indeed nearly four in ten (37%) insisted having no other distinction other than being “Kenyans”. We see this all the time in common political discourse, especially around election time, in the campaigns that insist My Tribe Is Kenyan/ I Don’t See Tribe.

However, in line with the cognitive dissonance between people’s self-perception and actual voting behaviour, those calling themselves “Kenyans” are just as likely to be motivated by ethnic origins over policy issues. In other words, the so-called “Kenyans” still refer to their ethnic origins when deciding how to vote – just as much as those who are more upfront about admitting their allegiances to kinship ties.

Most intriguing of all is that among those who say Their Tribe Is Kenyan, actual ethnic origins propel voting behaviour most for those of the Kikuyu-Embu-Meru groups and for the Kamba.

In contrast, those Luo who regard themselves as “Kenyans” make no reference to their ethnic origins when making voting decisions. The scholars then asked: “Does this mean that the Kikuyu and related tribes equate their own ethnicity with national identity? Are they hinting that they see themselves as the only true Kenyans?” (emphasis mine).

I suspect that they do. We often wonder how many of those who fought for democracy in the 1990s did a full about turn and became the shameless Anglo Leasing thieves during the Kibaki years. What changed? I hazard that nothing did – they just regarded power (i.e. the Kenyan state) as rightfully belonging to them. That’s what they were fighting for – not real inclusion. Not democracy. Certainly not justice.

Wandia Njoya has written powerfully about how capitalism as a system is exclusionary and narrow-minded, and so must perpetuate itself through a single bloodline. “Its logic is mono-ethnic. It knows one colour of money: white.”

And so, in every African country, that predatory colonial system appointed a particular ethnic group as an honorary white community, and supported that ethnic group, no matter what. “In Kenya, the appointed bloodline is Kikuyu,” Njoya argues.

This is where Ruto’s – and earlier, Moi’s – postures as Ordinary Kenyans have their power. They are subverting this assumption, that Kikuyu-and-related interests are the same as Kenyan interests. They are reclaiming, even weaponising, Ordinary Kenyanness.

And so, in every African country, that predatory colonial system appointed a particular ethnic group as an honorary white community, and supported that ethnic group, no matter what. “In Kenya, the appointed bloodline is Kikuyu,” Njoya argues.

And this is also where the redistributive logic of Moi, and now Ruto, comes in. Moi’s policies took economic support away from coffee – principally grown in Central Kenya, the Kikuyu homeland – and into maize and milk in the traditionally less-privileged Rift Valley regions (home of the Kalenjin), thereby lifting up an alternative economic elite.

The only problem for Moi was that by the late 1980s one could no longer redistribute the “fruits” of independence – Jomo Kenyatta’s generation had already gotten the mzungu businesses through “Africanisation” programmes, the thousands of jobs vacated by colonial officials, land and other goodies.

And by the late 1980s, the mismanagement and mediocrity in public institutions meant that there was less fat to skim off – now one had to kill the whole animal. In the words of economist David Ndii, the Moi years were a “corrupt mediocracy”: Because Moi and his cronies were unable to generate sufficient returns, they ate into the capital.

Whereas in the Jomo Kenyatta era money was to be made by skimming off the profits of companies, now there was open asset stripping of state institutions. “That’s what the decay of our infrastructure during Moi was — they ate the capital.”

***

But there’s more. This subversion and reclaiming of ordinary Kenyanness is also a theological project in the Kenyan context. Moi redistributed political power, access to the presidency, and economic benefit, along the same lines that he supported Pentecostal and evangelistic ministries all over Kenya. Evangelical/ Pentecostal movements have within them a particularly democratic posture – at least theoretically – that has frequently made them clash with establishment powers. In the context of Empire, piety has always been a way of resistance in oppressive settings or in places where the power dynamic is unequal.

Take for example the African Inland Mission (AIM), which we know today as the African Inland Church (AIC), the denomination that Moi faithfully belonged to. In the early colonial years, AIM’s emphasis was on accepting recruits who demonstrated their commitment to Christianity and personal uprightness rather than those who had special training. This meant that the majority of those who showed an interest in the Mission and its activities were from the bottom rungs of society. They did not have property or power – they were described in Gikuyu as ahoi (landless tenants) and because of this, they did not have any prospects for leadership as heads of clans (mbari) or age groups (riika).

The AIM in Kijabe provided such people with an alternative route to power and status by the subtle deployment of piety as status. In order to be a leader in this context, one needed to demonstrate personal holiness, unlike the mainstream churches that put the emphasis on formal theological training.

This wasn’t confined to the AIM, but would come up again and again in East Africa during the colonial era, where various revival movements seemed to just be spiritual outpourings, but actually did the work of upsetting political authority and reclaiming some power for those on the fringes of society.

The AIM in Kijabe provided such people with an alternative route to power and status by the subtle deployment of piety as status. In order to be a leader in this context, one needed to demonstrate personal holiness, unlike the mainstream churches that put the emphasis on formal theological training.

In the late 1920s, for example, a revival movement began in Gahini in Rwanda, near the present-day border with Uganda. A young African Christian, Simeoni Nsibambi, did a deep reading of the Bible with the British doctor and missionary, Joe Church. Together they traced the chain references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible. “The result for both men was a spiritual transformation,” writes researcher Brian Stanley. The meetings at Gahini would “break through” after a public confession of sins – congregants would experience visions, falling down in trances, weeping, shaking, and other phenomena of near hysteria. Hymn singing sessions went on all night. This outpouring of the Spirit quickly spread to Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Congo, Kenya and South Sudan.

The revival led to a split in congregations in the region, between the abaka – those “on fire” – and those who were not. Missionary Geoffrey Holmes, writing from Gahini in April 1939, lamented the division of the station into two camps: “There is no real fellowship between those who are in this group [abaka] and those who are not. Those who are in it are continually seeking to convert those who are not to their way of thinking, and every means of persuasion and moral coercion are employed.”

But the revival also did something else; it made possible an equal fellowship between missionaries and Africans on level ground, a new working relationship that made some Europeans uncomfortable. They were surprised to find that even though they had brought the gospel to the “Dark Continent”, they did not have exclusive access to it – it could be wrestled away from them by the power of the Holy Spirit’s baptism on the altar of an ordinary kesha.

As Simeoni Nsibambi once told Joe Church “with disarming simplicity”, “Do you know, Dr Joe, I can tell after I have shaken hands with a new missionary whether he has got the real thing in his heart or not.”

For the missionaries it was a humbling experience, and not all succeeded in coming to terms with it. In Church’s words: “We were beginning to see that we had come as missionaries to bring the light, but every now and again that light was turned round to shine on us.”

In this light, we can read the various revival movements – which I encountered in my teenage years as a Pentecostal during Holy-Spirit-baptism type moments, as I describe in Part I of this series – as a kind of redistribution. These movements broke down the barriers between the stuffy church institutions and the people of God by making the very presence of God available to all who would believe – even more than the classic Reformation notion of making the Scriptures accessible to all.

In that way, they were democratic, in a sense. Anyone who was “on fire”, who demonstrated a personal holiness, could speak with real authority. God could use anyone.

But when these two strands – Ordinary Kenyanness as economic redistribution and Powerful Christianness as ordinary personal piety – are knitted together, we arrive, rather darkly, at Ruto the devout, teetotaling Christian mired in corruption scandals. One even suspects that it is not coincidental that Kamlesh Pattni, the mastermind of Kenya’s biggest redistribution exercise in the form of mega graft, was reborn as Brother Paul.

***

Life is theology. The way we conceive of a higher power, or even the absence of one, determines what we think about ourselves, about each other and about the world around us. The influence goes the other way too – humans create cosmologies and end-of-the-world narratives based on their material conditions.

But when these two strands – Ordinary Kenyanness as economic redistribution and Powerful Christianness as ordinary personal piety – are knitted together, we arrive, rather darkly, at Ruto the devout, teetotaling Christian mired in corruption scandals.

So what does Ruto’s predatory, redistributive gangster theology tell him, and us? That hustlers can make it too, that the presence of God is not exclusive to a select few, that the pious son of a peasant deserves access to the Holy of Holies.

The problem is when that democratisation of the Spirit is now extended to the institutions of the state – where brazen pillaging becomes an actual twisted act of faith.

There is a third, more excellent way. We need a Kenyan liberation theology that breaks us free from the grip of extractive colonial ideologies perpetuated by our petty plantation masters today and that also breaks us free from the false visions of a redistributive gangster theology.

Jesus of Nazareth preached the good news to the poor, recovered sight to the blind and freed captives. That’s what Jesus’s life, teachings and death were about – God’s protest against the exploitation of the weak by the strong.

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Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist, and 2018 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and has written on a wide range of subjects. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and more. Currently, Christine is the curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space for public interest storytelling.

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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