Connect with us


The Road to Hell: The Kibera Evictions and What They Portend for Human Rights and ‘Development’

16 min read.

The demolition of structures in Kibera to pave way for “development” has left in its wake shattered lives, broken dreams and a bitter distaste for Kenya’s politicians and institutions. By DAUTI KAHURA



THE ROAD TO HELL: The Kibera evictions and what they portend for human rights and ‘development’
Download PDFPrint Article

A responsible government takes care of its poor people until they are strong. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere: 1922–1999.

On the fifth day after the surprise dawn evictions at the infamous Kibera slums that lay in the path of a new road that is being constructed, I visited the area to witness first-hand the scorched earth policy that the government had employed to rout out the hapless slum dwellers. It was a bright sunny mid-morning with a clear blue skyline above but the area was eerily silent: From the District Officer (DC)’s offices, one could look yonder, as far as the eye could see, where once upon a time, there were structures and those structures housed human beings and their pets – cats, dogs, chicken, doves and rabbits, but now, all one could see was flattened land. The only movement was that of the Caterpillar bulldozer rumbling along like a military tank detecting land mines.

Kibera shares a border with the Nairobi Royal Golf Club, which is near former President Daniel arap Moi’s home, Kabarnet Gardens, and runs all the way down towards the Langata area. I met three elderly women who were watching the earthmover as it levelled the land where once stood their structures.

“I have lived here since 1969, and in my close to 50 years, I’ve never seen such a brutal, cold and calculated demolition from such a cruel government,” Mary Gikunda, a landlady whose structures (she declined to say how many she had) were flattened in a matter of seconds. “Those structures were my income, as well as my financial support for my children,” reiterated Ms Gikunda, who told me that all her (many) children were born in Kibera. Now in her mid-60s, the landlady seethed with fury against politicians, against state bureaucrats, against the security apparatus, against journalists, against anybody associated with the Jubilee government.

“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians,” posed Ms Gikunda. “Trust me, I will never vote again, I’m done. I’ve ran the course of my voting life. These people should leave me alone now. A road is a good thing – nobody in his right senses would oppose such a development. But is a road worth the wanton destruction you’ve just witnessed? Is it more important than people’s lives?”

“Why would the government do this to us? I woke up very early to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta, believing and trusting that he would not allow this kind of demolition to occur, but obviously we were duped; we are always duped by these politicians”

She and the two women were eating dry githeri (boiled maize and beans). “I was born here in Kibera,” said Josephine Munee. “I’ve spent all my life in Kibera, I know no other home. In all of my 65 years, we grew up being threatened by demolitions and evictions, but we fought back and we survived. Somehow, the past governments would perhaps think twice and have mercy on us, but this Jubilee government is something else.” Ms Munee observed that as the “wretched of the earth”, slum dwellers anywhere in Nairobi city were not the “owners of the land”, and so, the powerful and the mighty could do whatever they deemed fit, “but at 65-years-old, where would they expect me to go?”, she wondered aloud.

Rhoda Muthei, 87, was the oldest among the women: Because of her advanced age, her colleagues had looked for a plastic chair for her to prop up her back and rest on. In her Kikamba mother tongue, she asked them who I was and what is it that I wanted.

“I’m not in a mood to speak to anyone,” she told them. Persuaded to talk to me because I was not a state officer, she came to life and said, she came to Kibera via Langata in 1963, settling in her current abode proper in 1972. But now, it was no more and she did not know what to do and where to go. “I witnessed Jomo Kenyatta (the first President of the Republic of Kenya and the father of the current and fourth President Uhuru Kenyatta) being sworn in as the country’s first black leader in Langata and we ululated throughout the night, ecstatic in the knowledge that we could now henceforth self-govern ourselves. In the sunset of my years, I have no place to call home because the government does not have time for poor, old and dying women like me.”

However, even in the worst of adversity, people can have something to smile and live for. I walked 20 metres from where the three women were, navigating huge boulders to where Rachel Kerubo was, and found her preparing lunch on an open makeshift three-stone hearth. Charming and welcoming, she heartily invited me to lunch: ugali and omena (sardines) with kunde (indigenous bittersweet greens leaves). A delicious and nutritious dish, eaten mostly in low-income households, the meal is a mouth-watering combination that fills the stomach and is very pocket-friendly.

“I came to Kibera a decade ago after I was displaced by the 2007/2008 post-election violence in the Rift Valley,” said Kerubo. “There’s no respite for the poor and the weak in this country. Now it looks like I’m on the run again.” Her house in Kibera had been flattened, but she counted herself lucky: She was just in time to rescue her wooden chicken coop, part of her income-generating project when she came to Kibera. Her three-week-old chicks were scrounging the rubble for food with the help of the mother hen. In her mid-50s, Kerubo is as enterprising as they come.

Besides rearing chicken, she grew tomatoes on a 20X10 plot that she had rented next to where she lived. The tomato plants too had been flattened. With a group of other seven residents – five women and two men – Kerubo and her group had fund-raised to buy 10,000- and 5,000-litre plastic water tanks, where they stored water which they would sell to their fellow slum dwellers for a marginal profit. She also used part of the water to grow her tomatoes. “We were given two alternatives – we pour all the water and therefore save our tanks – or the bulldozers crush them,” Kerubo narrated to me. I found the water tanks lying on their belly on their raised wooden support, proof indeed that their contents had been rendered to the ground.

Across the field, on the other side of the wall, about 60 metres away, I found Halima Burhan cleaning dishes. Her ageing great aunty and daughter sat close by on the ground crossed-legged, their backs leaning on a semi-demolished mud wall. Tall and ebony black, Halima, at 63-years-old, is as energetic and as active as ever. Looking a little rugged, perhaps because of the vicissitudes of slum life, she still retains a trace of the impossible beauty that Nubian women are known for. “The Monday [July 23, 2018] morning demolition took us by complete surprise,” said Halima in proper Kiswahili sanifu (formal Kiswahili language).

“On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter. They assured us nothing untoward would be done without our prior knowledge. Little did we know they had come for a last reconnaissance tour to confirm that all the intended houses and buildings to be demolished were clearly marked, as they duped us that nothing sinister was in the offing.” In hindsight, said Halima, it was the calm before the storm.

On July 16, government officials [these were Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) personnel] descended on our homes, marked them with a red X sign, and told us that all the people who would be affected by the impending evictions would be paid a consolidated three-month payment to move away,” said Halima. “We asked them when the eviction notice was due, but they dodged the matter.”

The KURA officials had gone down to the three affected villages of Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi that would be razed down on Monday to pave way for the link road between Langata Police Station and Karanja Road in Kibera, ostensibly to enumerate and take the slum dwellers’ particulars for what the dwellers were made to believe would result in restitution. Four days later, KURA sent out a WhatsApp message and copied both Amnesty Kenya and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR). The message read as follows: “A multi agency team has successfully completed the Kibera enumeration process on 20th July 2018. The team is now analysing the data collected and once the process is complete, the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) report will be availed to the public.”

Yet, perhaps, unlike many of her slum mates, Halima should have been aware of the demolitions, “if only I had not brushed away my grandchild’s naggings.” On Sunday [July 22] evening, her grandson Masud Talib was playing football near the DC’s offices, when he saw the bulldozers being parked at the compound. Eleven-year-old Masud, acting on a child’s instincts, ran back home and called out his grandma: “Bibi, bibi, tutavunjiwa, nimeziona matrekta zikipaki pale kwa DC. Nimewasikia wakisema watabomoa manyumba.” (Grandma, grandma, they will demolish, I’ve just seen the bulldozers being parked at the DC’s compound and I overheard them saying they will demolish our houses. “We Masud nawe acha hayo,” (Please Masud stop that) Halima responded. There was nothing usual about the presence of bulldozers at the DC’s place – the road (Karanja Rd) connecting to Ngong Road was still under construction.

About 12 hours later, at around 6.00am, Halima was woken up by earth tremors beneath her house and wondered what possibly that could be. The demolitions had began and people were scampering from their houses. Because her house is 500 metres from the DC’s offices, the bulldozers’ earthshaking movements were audible from far, and her house was among the first ones to fall under the hammer. “Alhamudillahi my grandson is alive,” said Halima in supplication. Inside her house was her 90-year-old great aunty, grandson Masud and her daughter and her 12-week-old newborn baby. “Since demolitions, we have been sleeping outside, Allahu Akbar [God is great], the elements have so far not affected the baby.”

“I was raised on my paternal grandfather’s land – this land that they have just evicted me from,” recalled Halima. She had now stopped doing the dishes and we were standing next to the ramshackle ruins – a crude reminder of what she once called home for more than half a century. Her grandfather, Marjan Sakar, a soldier of the British army, was among the first Nubians to be settled at Kibera.

Nubian origins

Kibera, which for the longest time has been synonymous with the Luo people, owes its existence to Nubians’ bravery and diction. Kibera is a corruption of Kibra, Ki-Nubi for forest or a bushy area. The Nubians came from Sudan, around the Nuba Mountains. They were identified first by the Egyptian ruler Emin Pasha and later by the British imperial government as brave soldiers. At different times, they were enlisted by both Pasha and the British to wage wars on their behalf.

Modern Nubian history records them as having been settled in Kibera around 1897, just before Kenya become a British protectorate. Those that were settled in Kibera were part of the 3rd Battalion of the King’s African Rifles who formed the bulk of the soldiers who had been deployed to fight for the British Empire. By 1900, Kibera was already a military reserve. This designated area, next to the railway, was surveyed in 1917 and was gazetted the following year. The land was estimated to be 4197.9 acres. From 1912 to 1928, Kibera was administered as a military area under the direct control of the army authorities. Anybody who wanted to settle in the area needed a special pass and one of the requirements was to have served in the army for at least 12 years.

In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”

In 1963, Kibera was fully incorporated into the city boundaries of Nairobi. By 1970, the original area of 4197.9 acres had been reduced to just 500 acres. Today that land is just under 300 acres. Large portions of Kibera were swallowed by middle-class estates, like Ayany, Jamhuri, Langata and Ngei, along Ngong Road, leaving the Nubians to be concentrated at Lindi, Kambi Aluru, Kambi-Lendu, Kambi Muru and Makina and along Karanja Road. In the fullness of time other ethnic communities, such as the Kikuyu, Kamba, Kisii, Luo and Luhya, settled in Kibera.

In 1933, the colonial government appointed The Carter Land Commission to study and report on the land problems in Kenya. In reference to Kibera, the commission wrote: “It appears that this area was assigned to the King’s African Rifles in 1904, although not gazetted until many years later. There is nothing in the Gazette to show for what reasons so large an area was required, but it is common knowledge that one of the objectives was to provide home for the Sudanese ex-askaris.”

“In 2016, Nubian elders took the government to court,” Halima told me. “They were seeking to stop the road passing through our land and the intended demolitions and evictions.” On August 5, 2016, the “Abdulmajid Ramadhan & 3 Others V Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) & 4 Others” case was filed at the Environment and Land Court in Nairobi (Petition N0.974).

The court ruling

On April 28, 2017, Justice S. Okong’o ruled on the matter and directed KURA as follows: “In the interest of justice and in order to avoid human suffering, I order that the petitioners herein be included in the Langata/Kibera Roads Committee and be actively involved in the Relocation Action Plan (RAP) for the Project of the Affected Persons (PAP). I order further that the 1st, 2nd, and 5th respondents shall not evict or demolish the houses belonging to the petitioners until the agreed resettlement plan for the persons affected by the road project in question is put in place.”

In essence, what Justice Okong’o had done in his ruling was to order the Attorney-General, KURA and the road contractors, H.YOUNG, to enter into a preparation of the relocation action plan. From the time of the ruling in April 2017 to July 16, 2018, when KURA showed up with the eviction notice, they did not do anything to obey the court orders: they did not involve the Nubian elders or its committee; they did not come up with a discernable relocation action plan; and, in truth, they did nothing to show that they respected the law of the land.

Then, suddenly, KURA got caught up in a flurry of activities: On July 13, 2018, it requested a meeting with Nubian elders, KNCHR and the Mohammad Swazuri-led National Lands Commission (NLC) at its offices located at the Ministry of Roads offices ostensibly to convince these bodies to come up with the relocation action plan as per Justice Okong’o ruling. An official who attended that meeting told me, “The July 16 enumerations was a way of showing that KURA was keen on honouring the court’s ruling with the ‘false’ promise of giving something small to the people as compensation.”

The official told me that it was very odd that KURA would summon, among others, an independent body such as KNCHR to its offices and “KNCHR, unashamedly would troop to another body’s offices to scheme on how to bend and obstruct the constitution, while disobeying a court’s ruling. I had along chat with KNCHR commission members and I did not mince my words,” the official said to me.

“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official. The official explained to me how KNCHR is entrusted with quasi-judicial powers to summon the minister in charge of roads to explain eviction notices. He said the commission can equally go to court to secure an injunction on behalf of an aggrieved party and exercise powers to collect data, and even enforce corrective action.

Forced evictions: A violation of human rights

On my second day in Kibera, I met up with 61-year-old Joseph Omondi. Born and bred in Kibera’s Katwekera village, he is tall and sturdy and is always up and about and laughter is his second nature. When elated, he breaks into uproarious laughter and can crack your ribs with his practical jokes. “But on the day they demolished Kichinjio, Mashimoni and Lindi, I broke down and wept,” said a reflective Omondi. We were at the backyard of Kabarnet Gardens. At the Administration Police (AP) camp inside the stately home, there is a makeshift food kiosk, where food affordable to the security officers and their retinue is sold.

“In respect to the brutal evictions in Kibera, the commission punched below its weight. The 2010 Constitution and the KNCHR Act of 2011 grant the commission immense powers to summon state officers, the power to sue for injunction, through the courts, for such violations of human rights, and the power to investigate and prescribe remedies. So far the commission has deployed only a fraction of these powers,” added the official.

In between a meal of ugali and matumbo (fried intestines), Omondi told me he had witnessed forced slum demolitions over time in Nairobi – in Soweto (next to Spring Valley suburbs), in Kibagare (next to posh Loresho), in Muoroto (that used to be next to Country Bus Station) and in Mathare 4A. However, according to him, “This Kibera one ranks among the most horrendous, perhaps only to be rivalled by the brutal Muoroto slum eviction which took place at 3.00am and which resulted in some people losing their lives. How can a government be so brutal, merciless and conniving against its own people like this? In a post 2010 new constitution?”

“The state had come prepared to mow down the people in case they resisted or became violent,” pointed out Omondi. “But on this day the people did not resist. They watched, dazed, as their structures went down with their earthy belongings, with no time to salvage anything. With a 1000-strong force of regular police, AP, the brutal and inhuman paramilitary GSU (General Service Unit), it was going to be a futile resistance. So the people stood aside, the earthmovers roaring, flattening anything and everything on site, much like a military operation.”

I found Oscar Indula and David Lwili, both in their late-20, seated on a bench and pensively looking over the horizon beyond the site that they had once called home as residents of Kichinjio slum. “The state had come fully armed and it was a stealth operation. They had taken us by surprise, there was no time to mobilise. They came at dawn and many people were just waking up. Confused by the attendant commotion and seeing the encroaching excavators, the people panicked. Then, they became lost and bewildered. But even if we could have mobilised, we would have been completely pulverised. It was a full army battalion, we stood no chance. We were gazing down at a massacre.”

Omondi told me he could only liken the Kibera evictions to the brutal demolitions that had razed down people’s homes and businesses in Zimbabwean cities and towns a dozen years ago. On May 19, 2005, the then Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government security forces rolled down on the capital city Harare’s informal settlements and flattened homes and businesses. It was a violent affair, overseen by the police and army, and soon spread to other major cities and towns.

Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Restore Order) was dubbed “Operation Tsunami” because of the speed and ferociousness with which it attacked the settlements. According to the “Report of the Fact-Finding Mission to Zimbabwe to assess the Scope and Impact of Operation Murambatsvina by the UN Special Envoy on Human Settlements Issues in Zimbabwe”, an assessment carried out by Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka between June 26 and July 8, 2005, about 700,000 people across cities in Zimbabwe lost homes, sources of income and sometimes both.

“The Kibera demolition affected between 30,000 and 35,000 families in the three villages,” George Odhiambo told me. “The exact figures are not known, but for those talking about 30,000, they should know that that is a very conservative estimate.”

Odhiambo is the founder of Adventure Pride Centre, a school that catered for pupils from pre-school to Class VIII and which was located in Kichinjio village. He took me to the precise place where the school had stood. It is difficult to believe that a stone building with a cemented floor once stood erect at Kibera’s ground zero. The only sign that learning used to take place here were the scattered text books and some completely new and unused exercise books. Nothing was spared in the wake of the demolitions.

“Adventure, alongside two other schools – Egesa Children’s Centre and Makina Self-Help Primary School – rested on Nairobi Royal Golf Club’s private land, contrary to the popular belief that everything that was demolished was on government land,” said Odhiambo. “The management of the Club had had an understanding with the schools’ owners to operate on its land, as long as they used the premises as learning institutions.”

I asked Odhiambo what would happen to the Class VIII pupils who will be sitting for the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) this year. “The pupils are very confused, distraught, disturbed and will need counselling,” observed Odhiambo. “Currently, all the pupils are at home, as we think of what to do next. For the Class VIII, we have to quickly find alternative centres where they will sit for their exam. Already, as it is, they learn under some of the harshest conditions that one can possibly imagine and yet have to compete in the same exams, with kids going to exquisite schools, laden with textbooks, learning materials and whose teacher-student ratio is at most 1:15 and where teachers are always present.” In total, there were eight schools in the three villages that were brought down: Adventure Pride Centre, Egesa Children’s Centre, Love Africa Primary School, Mashimoni Primary School, which had been there since the 1970s, Makina Self-Help, Mashimoni Squatters, Mashimoni SDA and Saviour King School.

Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.” Chief among its recommendations were:

  1. Evictions should be carried out when appropriate procedural protection are in place
  2. These protections are identified by the UN Commission as Economic and Social and Cultural Rights
  3. An opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected
  4. Adequate and reasonable notice for affected people prior to the eviction
  5. Information on the proposed evictions must be fully provided
  6. Government officials and/or representatives to be present during the evictions
  7. Evictions are not to take place in adverse weather or at night.
  8. Government to ensure that no one is rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights as a consequence of evictions
  9. Adequate alternative housing and compensation for all losses must be made available to those affected prior to eviction, regardless of whether they rent, own, occupy or lease the land in question.

“The saga of the Kibera-Langata link road is very puzzling. There are too many shortcuts, too many loose ends and illegalities,” observed Omotto. “And they are being let to pass, while in fact, we have a precedent to follow.” He reminded me of the Kwa Jomvu evictions in 2015 and how the Kenya National Highway Authority (KeNHA) redeemed itself by owning up to orchestrating forceful eviction of the Jomvu houses and business premises without following the due process of the laid out stipulations.

Josiah Omotto, of the Umande Trust, an NGO that works in the water sector in Kibera, said that between 2008 and 2009, the ministry responsible for housing led a team of experts to scout for best practices on eviction guidelines. The team borrowed from the United Nations and best practices from visits to Brazil, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.” The result was the compilation of the government’s document: “Towards Fair and Justifiable Management of Evictions and Resettlement: Land Reform Transformation Unit (LRTU) secretariat.”

On May 17, 2015, more than 100 inhabitants of the Kwa Jomvu informal settlement along the Mombasa-Mariakani Highway were woken up by a bulldozer trampling on their structures at night, between 11.00pm and past midnight. The bulldozer, escorted by armed police, flattened their houses and business premises. “Driven Out For Development: Forced Evictions in Mombasa”, a report by Amnesty International, says the people complained that they had not been consulted beyond being given a January 2015 eviction notice. They had not received any information on eviction process, resettlement, or compensation.

On August 13, 2015, KeNHA organised a public sensitization meeting and owned up to carrying out the forced demolitions. The roads authority asked the people to form a committee to tabulate their losses and present the same to KeNHA. It also educated the people about the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) and Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) for the project. In September 2015, KeNHA took responsibility for the evictions and agreed to pay compensation till the end of 2015.

Then last month, once again, one of the most famous slum colonies in Africa was in the international news: On the days I was there, the slum had attracted its usual voyeuristic suspects – local and international news corps, “development” workers and NGO crusaders, all hoping to share a piece of the slum’s soul.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.


Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.


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.



The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
Download PDFPrint Article

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 servicesCritics 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.

Continue Reading


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.



Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading


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.



Breaking the Chains of Indifference
Photo by Musnany on Unsplash.
Download PDFPrint Article

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.

Continue Reading