FROM BIRTHER TO MORE OF THE SAME: American foreign policy in the Age of Trump and its impact on Kenya12 min read.
US policy to Kenya has been remarkably consistent for the last quarter century, across both Republican and Democratic administrations. Despite Donald Trump’s roiling of politics at home, that is not about to change. By KEN FLOTMANN
Ten years after the 2008 election campaign, the “Birthers” have won for now in the United States, but Barack Obama remains a positive symbol with time for another act. The former US president stopped in Kenya on his way to South Africa, his third visit to his father’s birthplace since arriving on the national political scene in 2004 as an Illinois state legislator through a speech at the Democratic Convention that nominated John Kerry to challenge the re-election of George W. Bush.
It is now ten years since I returned to the United States with my family from our year-long East Africa democracy assistance sojourn in Nairobi in the wake of the failed 2007 election, the post-election violence, and February 28 “peace deal”. The day we flew out of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for Amsterdam en route to Atlanta on the way home to Mississippi, I was first exposed to the “birther” conspiracy theory through a front-page story in the Daily Nation.
Many may not remember fully now but recognise that, in its inception, the “birther” conspiracy theory was not just the idea that then Senator Obama was born in Kenya, and secretly smuggled into the US as an infant, and was thus not technically eligible to be elected President of the United States; it also fit into the context of the claims that Obama was involved, as a US Senator from Illinois in 2007, in a conspiracy with Raila Odinga to steal Kenya’s election on behalf of Muslims. These bizarre claims embellished from there into a narrative that rather than being a loyal American, Obama was essentially on the side of al-Qaeda and the global jihadists to establish a Sharia-enforcing caliphate and that Obama was, in essence, on the other side of the war being fought by Americans in the “surge” led by Bush and General Petraeus in Iraq to defend the fundamental underlying values of our democratic republic and Western democracy in general.
Many may not remember fully now but recognise that, in its inception, the “birther” conspiracy theory was not just the idea the that then Senator Obama was born in Kenya, and secretly smuggled into the US as an infant, and was thus not technically eligible to be elected President of the United States; it also fit into the context of the claims that Obama was involved, as a US Senator from Illinois in 2007, in a conspiracy with Raila Odinga to steal Kenya’s election on behalf of Muslims.
The conspiracy theories about the 2007 Kenyan election faded somewhat over time, partly because of the peace deal that put Odinga in Mwai Kibaki’s government as Prime Minister, where he continued to be friendly to the West, and partly because it became clearer that the election was stolen by Kibaki’s side, which controlled the Electoral Commission of Kenya (and not by the opposition which didn’t). Reports at the time from the American right at the Heritage Foundation think tank and National Review magazine, noting the theft of the election, helped American conservatives who cared about facts avoid getting sucked into nonsense about a Luo jihad involving “tribesman” Obama and “cousin” Raila.
While there remain a few holdouts who claim that “we can’t know” who won Kenya’s 2007 election, they seem to be pretty well limited to personally interested parties at this point, with the release of the State Department cables showing that US ambassador Michael Ranneberger himself saw tallies being changed at the ECK and claimed to have encouraged the late ECK Chairman, Samuel Kivuitu, to withstand the pressure to declare Kibaki the winner anyway, even though Ranneberger knew that the chairman had no way of controlling the Commission, which was thoroughly stacked by Kibaki in the weeks and months before the election.
Once it is recognised that the vote tallies were actually changed at the ECK, Americans (most especially rock-ribbed traditional stalwarts attracted to “the Tea Party” and/or Donald Trump’s “neopatriotism”) will understand that Kenyans had a duty, not just a right, to protest the 2007 election. Americans would not trust biometric voter registration (or tolerate secret voter lists) but most certainly, the traditional American narrative would demand that we march on our country’s court houses if our votes were simply changed by our election officials. Ranneberger’s pre-election cables to Washington made clear that as of that time, the Kenyan courts were not independent and would provide no recourse so that voters would be forced to go to the streets if there was fraud that became known.
Once you legitimise protesting the actions of the ECK, and recognise that the largest category of deaths (35%) during the post-election violence, as per the Waki Commission, were the result of violence inflicted by Kibaki’s security forces, and that a large number that were identifiable by tribe were Luo, then the whole notion of some extraneous evil conspiracy somehow involving Obama and the global jihad as the reason for the post-election violence becomes that much more irrational.
According to the Waki Commission’s report, the largest number of casualties (744) were in the Rift Valley. A portion of violence that then Assistant Secretary of State, Jendayi Frazer, insisted on calling “ethnic cleansing” in a January 2008 visit (a label not adopted in Washington) was conducted by Kalenjin militia in the pattern employed by KANU in 1992 and 1997. KANU was a religiously diverse secular party that sought to maintain single-party hegemony through compliant cadres among all major tribes and religious groupings in accordance with its political needs. No suggestion that Moi, who personally identified as a Protestant Christian, was a secret Muslim jihadi, even though the victims may have been mostly Christians.
The International Republican Institute/University of California, San Diego exit poll funded by USAID (the one showing an Odinga presidential win by roughly six points that was embargoed for six months) gave more evidence in the details that the 2007 election contest was driven, as is normal in Kenya, by tribal rather than religious alignment, with Odinga shown as winning a majority of self-identified Christians and of Muslims (although the margin was greater among Muslims). On the other hand, there was a “gender gap” with women favouring Kibaki and men Odinga.
It may also seem hard to remember now but by January 2009, Obama was sworn in to a wave of good feeling with high approval numbers. He had campaigned as a pragmatic moderate Democrat who was against dumb wars and only for smart ones; a Christian who grew up with limited religion and who was popular with the irreligious left and the Christian left and who made some real inroads courting what we call “Evangelicals” who were not part of the more politicised, harder, “Religious Right”.
It may also seem hard to remember now but by January 2009, Obama was sworn in to a wave of good feeling with high approval numbers. He had campaigned as a pragmatic moderate Democrat who was against dumb wars and only for smart ones
The inaugural celebrations seemed to suggest some real healing from the cultural rifts of “the Sixties” and “Vietnam” that featured so prominently in presidential campaigns throughout my lifetime, as well as a milestone to show that we had come so far in overcoming racial prejudice in the post-Civil Rights era that black/white racial issues were no longer a part of those cultural rifts. Maybe we had more in common than our political leaders had been telling us since the rise of Fox News and the Bill Clinton impeachment saga; maybe this president could be a “uniter not a divider”. In part the failure of his predecessors was because the Bush political operation ended up pulling a “bait-and-switch” by mobilising gullible church networks to support the invasion of Iraq for regime change using a claimed causus belli of active chemical/biological and nuclear weapons programmes, then firing up the culture wars further to drive turnout to get re-elected over John Kerry. This was a bad error of moral judgment that has continued to reverberate through American politics.
Kerry was certainly a Yankee patrician from “central casting” — as Kenyans well know from the 2017 election — but he was unquestionably accurate in pointing out in debate with Bush that we had gotten “stuck in Iraq”. Of course, Kerry was too polite, patrician and/or patriotic to go for the jugular and trash Bush for Iraq the way Donald Trump did in his 2016 campaign.
For saying that we were “stuck in Iraq”, Kerry got pilloried as “unpatriotic” aside from the “Swift Boat” sliming he got over his military service in Vietnam – conveniently not a problem for Clinton, Bush, Cheney or Trump, who all managed in various ways not to get sent, unlike Kerry who actually volunteered to go to Vietnam. Nonetheless, the unhealed cultural wounds were such that almost 30 years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam was still a winner for Bush over Kerry, in spite of Iraq.
Part of the reason that Obama took office with a wave of good feeling and better numbers than he had during the election was that John McCain declined to play along with the trashing of Obama in darker ways and treated him as a legitimate political adversary. It was good for the country and gave Obama a fair start in office.
“Birtherism,” though, in spite of McCain’s choice, became an enduring American movement that has had a profound effect on our politics and transformed the Republican Party with which I had been involved for much of my life. Ultimately, the Birther Movement became a tool for Donald Trump as an outsider to gain “free media” attention and admiration from those who were otherwise profoundly afraid of or opposed to the Obama presidency.
People like John McCain and George W. Bush or his family members in politics, whatever their faults and mistakes on policy choices (even the really big one, invading Iraq, which McCain acknowledges in his latest book, The Restless Wave) were too experienced, too educated, and too well advised to believe the craziness about Obama being secretly smuggled into the US as a Kenyan child (although the McCain campaign did check it out to make sure as did the McClatchy newspaper chain) and were morally constrained, in my judgment at least, from deliberately lying about it to hurt Obama. If you cannot buy that it was morals, at least we can agree that they were restrained by a judgment that it was better politics to stay out of that gutter. Hillary Clinton also stayed away (even if one credits the report that her adviser Sidney Blumenthal triggered the McClatchy review to make sure there was nothing to it).
Donald Trump was not similarly constrained and his hectoring of Obama put him in the front row of politics in America. He shared headlines with Obama even as Osama bin-Laden was being killed by Navy Seals under Obama’s command. Not one to accept defeat in an argument by being proven factually wrong, in this case by the release of Obama’s long form Hawaii birth certificate, Trump bided his time and cranked the Movement back up for his presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, discarding it once he had seized the agenda and the Republican Party since the specific “birther” claim was no longer useful to him.
It has been a bit surreal for me to see this happen. Educated middle-class Americans of my generation (Obama’s, essentially) have a lot to answer for in our complacency. Our democratic republic requires more attention and effort than we have delivered in recent years – whatever our party or policy preferences.
Not one to accept defeat in an argument by being proven factually wrong, in this case by the release of Obama’s long form Hawaii birth certificate, Trump bided his time and cranked the Movement back up for his presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, discarding it once he had seized the agenda and the Republican Party since the specific “birther” claim was no longer useful to him.
Fortunately, just as Obama himself has, we hope, time for other acts in his public life as an American after elective politics, the Trump presidency too shall pass and the Birther Movement will be a strange chapter in political history books. It will leave scars and I expect that Trump will be willing to use other lies for domestic advantage that will manipulate gullible people and torque emotions on difficult and divisive social matters. But in the longer term, I think we will rise to the occasion and get to a better range of equilibrium. We have significant long- term challenges on poverty, education, healthcare, economic mobility, and government debt that have been building up during our protracted wartime, but I think Americans are getting more engaged and are rolling up their sleeves to work on solutions.
Trump as an individual is something of a fluke. Most of the people who voted for him have little in common with him really. I know this because they are my peers, my extended family and friends to a great extent. He lost the national popular vote in a low turnout election. Trump won in large part because neither Obama nor the Clintons succeeded in building a Democratic Party that was seriously competitive in much of the country.
The big difference as of now is that Trump as president in our system still has far less power than the president in any of the East African countries. He will leave office by the end of his lawful first term or his second, if re-elected.
On balance, I think that we will see American policy in its relations with Kenya in the Trump years to continue to be largely a continuation of that under Obama, as reflected in the American approach to supporting both the 2013 election with John Kerry as Secretary of State and 2017 with Kerry as chief election observer and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, with Bob Godec as “our man in Kenya” throughout – just as Obama’s relationship with Kenya in its policy aspects was primarily a continuation of the approach under George W. Bush.
There have been a few major inflection points in the American/Kenyan relationship in the last twenty years, but most have not been specific to whoever was president in either Washington or Nairobi.
On balance, I think that we will see American policy in its relations with Kenya in the Trump years to continue to be largely a continuation of that under Obama, as reflected in the American approach to supporting both the 2013 election with John Kerry as Secretary of State and 2017 with Kerry as chief election observer and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, with Bob Godec as “our man in Kenya”
The first, of course, was the al-Qaeda Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, kicking off the ongoing conflict between the US and Kenya, on the one side, and various Islamist “violent extremists”, on the other. As reflected in the Mombasa rocket attack, the USS Cole bombing, the bombing in Kampala, the various attacks in Kenya, most notoriously the Westgate Mall and Garissa University killings, terrorist incidents have been a regional “fact of life” ever since.
For most Kenyans, terrorism is not quite so central a concern as it is to Americans, but it has still inevitably shaped both sides of the relationship over the last two decades. And in this context, after 9/11 and our ensuing land wars in South Asia, with the establishment of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa base in Djibouti, Kenya resumed its regional security role along the lines established in the 1970s and ‘80s when the United States was fighting the Cold War and Kenyatta and Moi wanted protection from Idi Amin and Siad Barre, as well as the kind of relationship that would be useful to them in avoiding disruption to their domestic rule.
The next inflection point, albeit of lesser magnitude from an American standpoint, was the retirement of Moi and the transition to NARC and Kibaki.
Next was the demise of NARC and the failure of constitutional reform with the 2005 referendum. Related this was the Anglo Leasing scandal that showed that security and counterterrorism were for sale at high levels, along with the baseline of corruption in the police and security services that let terrorists move about and in and out of the country. The Artur Brothers and the Standard flamboyantly highlighted the rot.
Next, and finally, was the start of the war in Somalia to save and reinstate the Transitional Federal Government and oust the Islamic Courts Union in December 2006. Since that time the United States Government has continued to have and support all our other existing priorities in Kenya, such as lifesaving humanitarian health support through PEPFAR and other lower profile programmes, food assistance and small farm agricultural support, along with supporting all sorts of philanthropic-type programmes and the somewhat more controversial “big development” initiatives like Power Africa, frequently in cooperation with other donors.
In recent years we also started devoting more governmental focus to promoting international private financial investment, such as the 2015 U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation investment in the Dubai-based Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund, L.P., that has been active in the Nairobi private healthcare market prior to recently entering liquidation under circumstances being investigated.
Nonetheless, in the meantime we have been at war in a country with a huge border with Kenya – a country during much of these last eleven-and-a-half years that has been too dangerous to support with a full diplomatic and aid presence and which has thus had those parts of the effort supported from Kenya. And from reading the newspapers back in the day and a few books, it is apparent that Kenya provided some military support for the invasion by the Ethiopian military at the time to contain the potential spread of terrorism.
In 2011, during Kibaki’s second term, with the support of Prime Minister Odinga, Kenya entered the war directly and formally in its own right. Roughly nine months later, the Kenya Defense Forces were admitted into the AMISOM peacekeeping collaboration, allowing for financial reimbursement through Western donors, and eventually driving al-Shabaab, now formally asserting affiliation with al Queda, out of their previous position of direct control of the port at Kismaayo (not to say that al Shabaab did not continue to apparently benefit from the illicit charcoal and sugar trade through the port).
Nonetheless, in the meantime we have been at war in a country with a huge border with Kenya – a country during much of these last eleven-and-a-half years that has been too dangerous to support with a full diplomatic and aid presence and which has thus had those parts of the effort supported from Kenya.
In June 2006, a few months before the Ethiopians were invited to install the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu, Ambassador Bellamy finished his service in Nairobi and Ambassador Ranneberger was appointed by President Bush from the Foreign Service. Within a few months of the start of the war, Ranneberger sent a cable to Washington explaining that his approach for “achieving U.S. objectives in Kenya’s elections” was to stay quiet on the debates on constitutional reform and election reform and “build capital” with the incumbent. With the perturbation of the 2008 crisis and the intervention for constitutional reform up through 2010, this has remained the baseline beat of our relationship over the years.
Will the recent moves by Kenya’s dominant new Jubilee Party to align with Communist Party of China structures and philosophy to accompany its huge borrowings from the Chinese state cause any serious rethink in Washington? I have no idea, but it certainly does not seem to have captured any particular place in the priorities of either the retired President Obama or current President Trump.
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The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
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.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
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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