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Mwalimu vs the Bulldozer: Has Magufuli Overturned Nyerere’s Legacy?

7 min read.

The Tanzanian president has turned his back on Nyerere’s open, cosmopolitan and Pan-Africanist vision.

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MWALIMU vs THE BULLDOZER: Has Magufuli overturned Nyerere’s legacy?
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Julius Nyerere cultivated an enduring Pan-Africanist domestic and foreign legacy. While his towering clarity is indisputable, in practice, some of his signature achievements are under threat. Domestically, President John Magufuli is emerging as the antithesis of everything Nyerere stood for.

The late Prof. Ali Mazrui once described Mwalimu Julius Nyerere as a Philosopher King. Mazrui was probably compelled by, among other things, Nyerere’s translation of two of Shakespeare’s works: The Merchant of Venice (Mabepari wa Venisi) and Julius Caesar (Juliasi Kaizari) into Kiswahili.

Nyerere and Tanzania remained the intellectual and material well-spring of Pan- Africanism. In political terms, for Nyerere, socialism was not an esoteric adventure; it was a lived experience, and thus, his experimentation with socialism with an African flavour. When it failed, especially in the economic realm, he readily accepted his mistakes.

Nyerere believed in his ideas. He once got into a spat with Kenya’s former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, when he described Kenya as a “man-eat-man society” because of its adoption of capitalism, prompting the latter to retort that Tanzania was a “man-eat-nothing society”. Nyerere preferred “Ujamaa”, or “familyhood”, as opposed to individualism.

Nyerere believed that Tanzania would not be completely free until all African countries were free from colonialism. He, therefore, provided arms, training and sanctuary to many revolutionary movements across Africa – the ANC in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and the NRM in Uganda, to mention a few. In the process, Nyerere turned Dar es Salaam into a fervent base of Pan-Africanism, where soldiers and scholars mingled and shared ideas.

Nyerere believed in his ideas. He once got into a spat with Kenya’s former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, when he described Kenya as a “man-eat-man society” because of its adoption of capitalism, prompting the latter to retort that Tanzania was a “man-eat-nothing society”.

Mobutu and the New World Order

Once the white minority governments were defeated in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Nyerere turned his attention to Zaire, which was later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). If Nyerere was the Dean of Pan-Africanism, Mobutu Sese Seko was the godfather of counter-revolutionary movements and governments. During the Cold War, Mobutu cleverly exploited the West’s existential fear of the spread of Communism in Africa, and thus acted as the conduit through which the CIA and Western governments supported movements like Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government of President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Mobutu came to power in Congo, which he renamed Zaire, in November 1965 after colluding with the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies to murder his predecessor and erstwhile ally Patrice Lumumba, who had been in power for only three months.

To the West, the mere mention of Communism was enough to open unfettered largesse, Mobutu’s human rights and economic mismanagement record notwithstanding. The wisdom went: “Yes Mobutu is a bastard, but he is our bastard.”

The end of the Cold War saw the tide change against Mobutu and his ilk; in South Africa, apartheid was defeated and Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island and elected as the country’s first black president.

Across Africa, at around the same time, a core cohort of young, “revolutionary” if not overzealous, leaders were coming into power across Africa. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi assumed power after defeating Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime in a bloody insurgency in 1989; in Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki took power in May 1991; and Yoweri Museveni took over in Uganda in January 1986, with the help of Nyerere. These leaders shared Nyerere’s visceral dislike of Mobutu’s government – the last of the remaining “Old Africa” regime.

Globally, after the end of the Cold War, buoyed by the defeat of the USSR, US foreign policy embarked on creating “The New World Order”. The US saw itself – and acted – as the uncontested leader of this New Order. Mobutu and leaders who were previously used to contain the spread of Communism in Africa now had to adopt market liberalisation and political pluralism if they were to stay in America’s good books.

For Mobutu, who had presided over a patrimonial state with neither functioning state institutions nor accountability, the rise of neo-Pan Africanist leaders presented a mortal danger to the survival of his regime.

Neo-colonialists and Neo-Pan Africanists

In Africa, the end of apartheid generated a good-feel factor and heralded a new dawn. However, the bubble was burst by the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which at least 800,000 people were killed. In its wake, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded and defeated the Juvénal Habyarimana government. Not one to miss an opportunity, Mobutu welcomed the remnants of Habyarimana’s government into Eastern Congo as a bargaining chip with the West.

For the new Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, Mobutu’s support for the old guard crossed a red line; it would not tolerate a génocidaire former government with complete state apparatus in Congo, protected and armed by Mobutu.

Mwalimu Nyerere saw a means of operationalising the removal of the Congolese dictator. Yoweri Museveni naturally welcomed anything Mwalimu Nyerere proposed as he saw himself as his natural heir and so agreed to be part of the effort. Nyerere’s appeal also easily pulled in the new victorious Ethiopians and the Eritreans governments. They all agreed that the process of removing Mobutu should be given a Congolese face.

The coalition settled on Laurent Kabila, who at that time was living in Butiama, Nyerere’s birthplace, and who was engaged in small-time farming. Kabila had well-worn, if sketchy, Pan-Africanist credentials. Che Guevara had described him as having “genuine qualities of a mass leader” but lacking “revolutionary seriousness”. While the coalition countries put in their support, Rwanda’s military, under James Kaberebe, led the military Blitzkrieg in late 1996 that finally saw Kabila installed as the president on May 17, 1997.

Comrades at war

Immediately after Kabila was installed as president in 1997, troubles that were initially overlooked during the anti-Mobutu’s military operations started emerging. Kabila’s poor political judgement, weak management skills and the divergence of Congolese and Rwandese visions for a post-Mobutu state became a cause for concern.

For Rwanda, the raison d’être of overthrowing Mobutu was to secure its border from attacks coming from the DRC, and its support for Kabila was contingent upon that. But once Kabila started supporting anti-Rwandan forces in Congo, he had to be overthrown. In less than three years following Mobutu’s ouster, Rwanda initiated another regime change campaign in Kinshasa, again with the help of Uganda.

Nyerere died in 1999 in a London hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Sixteen years after his death, John Joseph Magufuli became Tanzania’s fifth president.

#WhatMagufuliDid

When Magufuli first came to power, he was widely applauded domestically and across Africa for his unostentatious folksy approach to public policy. His fight against official corruption resonated with many countries across Africa where entrenched corruption has stymied service delivery and bred disenchantment. Many roundly applauded him. This catapulted him to a moment of pop culture cachet, complete with the Twitter hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, which cast him as an unfailing superhero who could do anything.

When Magufuli first came to power, he was widely applauded domestically and across Africa for his unostentatious folksy approach to public policy. His fight against official corruption resonated with many countries across Africa where entrenched corruption has stymied service delivery and bred disenchantment.

But his likeability quotient depreciated significantly once his administration took an authoritarian turn.

One of Magufuli’s signature policies, after fighting corruption and sloth, was Operation Timua Wageni (Operation Remove Foreigners). This was not limited to the multinational corporations with whom he had fraught relations, but also to citizens from neighbouring East African countries like Kenya.

Nyerere was an outward-looking globalist who saw Tanzania as a leader in world affairs. He invited people of African and non-African origin to witness Tanzania’s nascent experiment with an alternative model of governance and economic independence that was not controlled and exploited by global capital. Magufuli, on the other hand, is an inward-looking provincial nativist who wants a Tanzania for Tanzanians alone.

It is not just Magufuli; even the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has turned away from being a bastion of intellectualism into a populist outfit. In many cases, instead of reining Magufuli in, CCM has become an enabler of his worst instincts.

Nyerere was an outward-looking globalist who saw Tanzania as a leader in world affairs. He invited people of African and non-African origin to witness Tanzania’s nascent experiment with an alternative model of governance and economic independence that was not controlled and exploited by global capital. Magufuli, on the other hand, is an inward-looking provincial nativist who wants a Tanzania for Tanzanians alone.

Nyerere saw himself and Tanzania as the vanguard against imperialism. In explaining his vision, he stated: “We the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was before only humiliation”.

But Magufuli has turned his back on this open, cosmopolitan and Pan-Africanist vision. Since taking the presidency, he has not travelled outside the East African Community countries. In this aspect, has more in common with the nativist nationalists in Europe and President Donald Trump.

Julius Nyerere was a trained teacher, but he always maintained he was a teacher by choice and a politician by accident. Even when he was a politician, he couldn’t help being a teacher, educating Tanzanians through his many speeches, like a school master. Nyerere did not just speak, he also changed the fortunes of Tanzania. During his tenure, the proportion of Tanzanians who could read and write stood at a phenomenal 83 per cent. Hence his title Mwalimu.

Magufuli was also a trained Chemistry and Mathematics teacher. But he made his name at the Ministry of Works where he got things done in a civil service that is not reputed for efficiency, earning him the moniker “Bulldozer”. He became the president by “accident” after CCM failed to agree on a single candidate. Since becoming the president, he seems determined to take his bulldozer mindset to wrong-headed extremes. Last year he declared: “As long as I am president…no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…After getting pregnant, you are done.” Such a statement from a president who was a teacher no less is incredulous.

Women and girls are not the only group that Magufuli has picked a fight with; he has also antagonised a wide array of actors, including the media, civil society organisations, international organisations, and opposition Members of Parliament. Kenyans, who have had a complicated relationship with Tanzania following the manner in which the East African Community collapsed in 1977, were particularly on the receiving end of Magufuli’s harsh measures. Recently, the Tanzanian government burned 6,400 one-day-old Kenya-sourced chicks because they were allegedly imported illegally into the country.

Magufuli believes that foreigners are taking away jobs from Tanzanians. Granted, immigration tends to be a complex and complicated issue that doesn’t always necessarily lend itself to sober policy interventions, but making a 360-degree turn away from established Nyerere norms mirrors the views of the nativists politicians on the Right across Europe who have made African and Muslim immigrants their bete noire. Magufuli’s opposition to the free movement of people, goods and services is rooted in his belief that the privatisation of state corporations in the 1990s went too far and, therefore, needs to be reversed. While the diagnosis could be accurate, its policy prescription is misguided.

Domestically, the transformation of Tanzania from a bastion of Pan-Africanism into a government that shares anti-immigration values with right-wing populists in Europe and the United States has done tremendous injustice to Nyerere’s legacy.

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Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa.

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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