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Homeless in the City: Was the Kibera demolition a violation of housing rights?

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The brutal and illegal evictions of Nairobi’s poor to make way for infrastructure demonstrates that the city remains true to its colonial origins as a space for the elite. Is Kenya sacrificing humanity for development? BY APRIL ZHU

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HOMELESS IN THE CITY: Was the Kibera demolition a violation of housing rights?
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It has been a long time since waist-high concrete beacons dropped down along the middle of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, marking the corridor of a future road and serving as an omen of change. But for almost two years, they stood rather impotently, largely ignored and even vandalised a few times, as no road came. Legal battles had frozen the encroaching highway in its tracks.

The road that was yet to come was Missing Link 12, a Sh2 billion four-lane highway partially funded by the Japanese government, one of many other “missing links” that would connect major highways in Nairobi. In the meantime, life in Kibera carried on for years between the beacons in that 600-metre-long corridor.

This changed on Friday, 20 July, 2018, when Maxwell (who requested that his surname not be used), who lived in Mashimoni, squarely within the road corridor, heard an announcement on the radio: “There will be a demolition on Monday morning.”

Word was starting to get around, but many were still making light of the news. After all, the road had been in the works for years and the Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA), the government body responsible for construction of this road, had just completed the first stage towards developing a Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) only days before. Maxwell recalls the radio ads sounding more like warnings for motorists to avoid the area because of possible demonstrations. He felt confident that the residents would be given a stronger warning the day before the actual demolition, but, just in case, he moved his belongings to his cousin’s home in Makina, a safe distance from the demolition zone.

Maxwell made the right call. At approximately 7am on Monday, 23 July, three bulldozers, accompanied by hundreds of heavily armed Administration Police officers, descended on houses, kiosks, churches, and schools from the Ngong Rd end to the Lang’ata Rd end of the corridor. The concrete beacons became marshals for a swift and total demolition.

KURA spokesperson, John Cheboi, told The Elephant that 2,182 structures within the corridor were targeted. According to Amnesty International Kenya, over 10,000 residents were displaced. It was the largest eviction to occur in Kibera since the 2009 relocation of 5,000 people from Soweto East under the Kenya Slum Upgrading Project, for which decanting sites were built in Lang’ata.

Several other Missing Links throughout the city will also require evictions, including at the Deep Sea slum in Parklands, which is scheduled to be cleared to complete Missing Link 15, a mass eviction which may affect another 3,000 people. On 19 July, the Multi-Sectoral Committee on Unsafe Structures released a public notice requesting that residents of Kaloleni, Makongeni, Mbotela, Mutindwa, Dandora, and Kenyatta University (Kamae) move voluntarily in advance of “the removal of all structures”.

KURA spokesperson, John Cheboi, told The Elephant that 2,182 structures within the corridor were targeted. According to Amnesty International Kenya, over 10,000 residents were displaced.

Legal framework on evictions

For a problem that is set to continue, Kenya has a comparatively imprecise legal framework on evictions. “There are enough constitutional provisions that would forbid the government from doing what it did that morning, but there is no eviction law,” says Irũngũ Houghton, the Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya. Article 43(1b) of Kenya’s Constitution guarantees the right of every person to “accessible and adequate housing” and Article 40(4) affirms that, in the case that the state deprives any person of property, “provision may be made for compensation to be paid to occupants in good faith of land acquired under clause (3) who may not hold title to the land.” The Internally Displaced Persons Act of 2012 also holds that people displaced by “large-scale development projects” are entitled to a human rights-based process of eviction.

In addition, Kenya is party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. All of these uphold the right to adequate housing and, to varying degrees of specificity, provide guidelines for humane evictions within a human rights framework. Article 2(6) of the Constitution makes any treaty or convention ratified by Kenya part of Kenyan law.

There are also eviction guidelines from the Ministry of Housing that give, for example, conditions under which evictions should not occur, several of which were flagrantly violated in the Kibera demolition: no evictions in inclement weather, while students are in school, or without completion of a Resettlement Action Plan (RAP).

There have also been several major judicial precedents set in the last few years that interpret the Constitution to prioritise human rights, regardless of land ownership or tenancy status. In 2011, police and unidentified youth evicted more than 1,100 residents and destroyed 149 homes on public land near Garissa that was to be used for a road. The High Court, however, ordered the government to restore the evictees to their land, rebuild their homes, and pay Sh220 million in compensation, citing that evictees’ “rights to housing and to be treated with dignity and respect had been violated.”

There have also been several major judicial precedents set in the last few years that interpret the Constitution to prioritise human rights, regardless of land ownership or tenancy status.

Then in 2013, after the railway pension board gave residents of Muthurwa Estate in Nairobi 90 days to vacate before demolition, the High Court ruled that the board had violated evictees’ “rights to adequate housing and sanitation, and human dignity, and violated children’s rights to protection after it sent bulldozers to demolish hundreds of homes at dawn.” Judge Isaac Lenaola, in this ruling, added, “I must lament the widespread forced evictions that are occurring in the county coupled with a lack of adequate warning and compensation which are justified mainly by public demands for infrastructural developments.”

In the case of Missing Link 12, the High Court issued a similar order for Petition 974 (2016) requiring that a full RAP be completed before demolition. Shafi Ali Hussein, the director of the Nubian Rights Forum and one of the petitioners in that case, was present when KURA met with the Kenya National Human Rights Commission, the National Land Commission and Kibera community leaders. KURA agreed to roll out the RAP “with immediate effect”, according to Hussein. In the next few days, KURA staff began enumeration, the first step of a RAP where the number of structures is counted and basic information on affected residents collected.

However, according to Hussein, KURA seemed ill-prepared to carry out the exercise, and the forms that staff members used for the questionnaires did not have serial numbers. Enumeration finished on Friday, 20 July, the same day Maxwell heard the radio announcement warning of evictions. The following Monday, it was to continue by verifying the data that had been collected, the next step necessary for setting up a compensation scheme. “But on Monday, unfortunately, we saw bulldozers,” said Hussein.

According to KURA spokesperson, John Cheboi, residents and owners of structures within the corridor had been notified to vacate by 16 July. When The Elephant asked Cheboi why they began the enumeration exercise days after residents were allegedly told to vacate, he responded that they were called back for the exercise.

Anti-poor urban design

Nairobi has remained true to its origins as a city designed for its elite, leaving for its working class what were literally and now figuratively remain “labour reserves” – unserviced, unrecognised crevices between its formal parts. Though the colonial urban management philosophy that Africans were unfit for city life was in effect a ploy to keep cheap African labour available for European commercial farms in Rift Valley’s “White Highlands”, the result was chronic underinvestment in urban spaces for indigenous Kenyans.

Kefa Otiso, professor of geography at Bowling Green State University, explains that, in addition to other race-based policies that prioritised European and Asian access to land and other economic resources within Nairobi, this “return to the land” policy resulted in many indigenous Kenyans settling in unsafe urban and peri-urban areas; they became, in his words, “the precursor of many modern slum and squatter settlements that are vulnerable to forced evictions.”

Nairobi’s population is set to hit 6 million by 2030, according to the World Bank, and currently 60 percent of its residents live in informal settlements. Much of this growth is propelled by rural-to-urban migration. At the current rate of urbanisation, this means almost half a million new slum dwellers every year. At the same time, land prices in and around Nairobi are skyrocketing due to a growing influx of illicit money laundered primarily through real estate and property markets. For the growing number of low-income, working-class households looking for affordable housing in Nairobi, this leaves few options outside of informal settlements.

In many ways, Nairobi’s anti-poor urban design today is a facsimile of colonial plans. Many low-income households are forced into the city’s “low-quality, high-cost trap”, where landlords are free to pursue economic incentives without administrative oversight or protection for tenants. Lucrative and efficient, slum real estate allows landlords to quickly buy “rights” to build on the land and see a return on investment without truly being held accountable for structural integrity or, in the case of the Kibera demolition, secure location. Landlords actively continued to build within the Missing Link 12 corridor even though there was impending construction, and, with the shortage of cheap urban housing in Nairobi, one could always find tenants.

In many ways, Nairobi’s anti-poor urban design today is a facsimile of colonial plans. Many low-income households are forced into the city’s “low-quality, high-cost trap”, where landlords are free to pursue economic incentives without administrative oversight or protection for tenants.

In the ruling of the 2013 Muthurwa case, Judge Lenaola gave the Attorney General 90 days not only to outline the government’s policies on evictions and explain whether they meet international standards, but also to explain what positive steps they would take to realise the right to accessible and adequate housing as guaranteed in the Constitution. “The right to adequate housing cannot be aspirational and merely speculative,” Lenaola said. “It is a right which has crystallised and which the State must endeavor to realise.”

The everyday, systemic violence that policy wreaks on the urban poor is often obscured by the obvious, photographable violence of events like the July 23 demolition. But even the sensational images – like the viral photograph that uncomfortably compressed into a single frame two Kibera evictees standing on rubble and golfers preparing to tee off just a couple of hundred metres away – sent a simple message worth emphasising: that alleviating the suffering of certain people, even when the opportunity cost is low, is not worth it. A little more humanity – a few more hours’ notice, perhaps – still could not justify delay in progress.

“That breeds a sense of historical injustice, this sense that we’re tenants of the city, we don’t really own it,” says Houghton of conversations he has had with affected residents of Kibera, one of whom said, “The city belongs to others and we just move in and out of the pieces of land that they don’t want, until they want it.” That’s the cynicism that a lot of people in the community have now, according to Houghton.

The images from Monday were perhaps then a more honest reflection of how the city sees its poor, something usually otherwise masked by political mobilisation. The Kibera demolition would not have happened before the elections last year, says Maxwell from Mashimoni, and certainly not before “The Handshake.” Neutralised by bridges and alliances, the local and national leaders, who would have otherwise drawn energy from Kibera, an adversarial hotspot, and taken a staunchly antagonistic position at least in rhetoric, were too quiet.

Rights and laws aside, the Kibera demolition has already happened, and it cannot be disputed that in the moment it rendered, in Houghton’s words, “people indistinguishable from property”: simply a large, inconvenient unit of “unsafe structures” that must be removed to make space for development. It took two days to clear the entire corridor.

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April Zhu is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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