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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

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The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. By ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin
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In the Jubilee universe, it is almost an article of faith that politics is “bad” and development is “good”. It’s not uncommon to hear President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and high-level administration officials and their supporters’ constant put-downs directed at their opponents: “We don’t have time for politics, we are only interested in development.” They believe that the depoliticisation of development is necessary in order for them to deliver on their campaign promises.

While such a rhetorical sleight of hand is occasionally designed to silence opponents – who are supposedly opposed to development – in practice, it also reveals the Jubilee government’s limited understanding of politics. For them development is a cold, apolitical, technical exercise that is not only immune to politics, but transcends it.

More broadly, Jubilee’s politics-development dichotomy is an insidious attempt at redefining politics as criticising Jubilee, whether fairly or unfairly, and development as praising the administration, whether they are delivering or not. The net aim is to induce self-censorship among critical voices.

Techno-fallacy

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics, bad life), never mind that under him, Kenya was firmly in mbaya zone. Maisha was so mbaya under Moi that economy growth was a mere 0.6 per cent when his successor Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002. Dissent was penalised and the country felt like a band that was dedicated to singing his praises. It is rather ironic that Jubilee, which would like to be remembered for good economic stewardship, would look to Moi for inspiration.

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”

The Jubilee government has also coupled the depoliticisation of development with a similar rhetoric on technology, in the process completely eviscerating nuances, complexities or grey areas when discussing public policy. You are either part of the cult of technology or you are not interested in progress.

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov captures Jubilee’s approach to development: “Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimised — if only the right algorithms are in place! — this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.”

For instance, one of Jubilee’s bright ideas of fixing the education system is to provide every child with a laptop, in line with their emphasis on learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as opposed to the humanities, which they see as not “marketable”. Never mind that only slightly over half of Kenya has access to electricity, that the teachers have not yet been trained or hired for the switch to using laptops, and most schools do not have computer labs. Jubilee is, after all, led by the dynamic digital duo that needs everyone to be wired.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

This is not new; under pressure domestically from opposition groups, and externally from the Bretton Woods institutions, Moi appointed a “Dream Team” to key public offices. The officials were drawn from the private sector, international finance and development organisations. The group was led by Richard Leakey (the famous paleoanthropologist and former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service who had even formed a political party to oppose Moi in 1990s), who was appointed as the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. Martin Oduor-Otieno, a former director of finance and planning at Barclays Bank, was appointed as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Planning and Mwangazi Mwachofi, the resident representative of the South Africa-based International Finance Corporation, became the Finance Secretary.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

While Moi was boxed into a corner and had no option but to cater to donors’ wishes, Jubilee’s appointment of well-credentialed public officials from the private sector is an attempt to demonstrate that the government is using corporate best practice principles to manage the public sector. However, the appointment of individuals with private sector or international expertise is rooted in a lack of appreciation for received bureaucratic wisdom; it is a system of faceless, unelected officials keeping the state’s institutions humming along and ensuring continuity from one administration to another.

For Jubilee, bureaucracy is a dirty word. Both under Moi and under Jubilee, the credentialed senior public officials failed to deliver, although on balance, Moi’s cabinet, which had more court poets than individuals with diplomas from good schools abroad, did better.

Grievances and greed

Jubilee’s weaponisation of optics and breathless spin was honed when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – the two principals in the Jubilee coalition – were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in 2007-2008 violence.

Ruto and Kenyatta make an unlikely political team. The latter is a prince of Kenya’s politics and the former is a self-declared “hustler”. Even when considering Kenya’s shape-shifting political landscape and allegiances, the two couldn’t be more different.

But they were brought together by grievance and greed. They regarded their prosecution at the International Criminal Court as a witch-hunt; they argued that the two top presidential candidates during the 2007 election that led to violence and displacement were former President Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence. Their spin was so effective that even some of the victims of the violence held “prayer rallies” for them.

In fairness, some of the reputational damage experienced by the ICC was self-inflicted. When I visited a IDP camp in Nakuru in 2011, one of the IDPs told me that the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Moreno Ocampo, had no time to visit them, and was busy doing safaris in Nairobi National Park.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence.

The ICC was not the only victim of Jubilee’s rage; Raila Odinga, the cottage industry of upstart politicians, felt the full weight of Jubilee’s relentless propaganda blitzkrieg, part of it also emanating from his support for the ICC process, which Ruto, his lieutenant in 2007, interpreted as throwing him under the bus. (Ruto was a leading member of Odinga’s team during the 2007 election.)

After claiming some big domestic and foreign scalps, Jubilee started believing is own hype. While many dismissed Jubilee’s breathless social media campaigns during the elections as a passing fad once the cold reality of governing sets in, for Jubilee social media was the system. Beyond the hype, any critical assessment of Jubilee’s grand ideas, such as a 24-hour economy, 9 international standard stadia, and 21st century public transport, would show that they are all sizzle and no steak. The large-scale infrastructure projects were mostly designed as a gravy train, as the Standard Gauge Railway amply demonstrated.

Politics of shamelessness

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. The shamelessness here is not the kind citizens have come to almost expect from the politicians; in Jubilee’s case, it is its modus operandi, a blunt object to hit opponents with. The lack of shame has not only been adopted by Kenyatta and Ruto, but also by their close lieutenants.

When the presidential results were announced two days after the annulled August 8, 2017 election, demonstrators and the police engaged in a running a battle in the Mathare slum in Nairobi. Police used live bullets and killed both demonstrators and bystanders. I spoke to some of the families of the victims and corroborated their stories with medical records and family witnesses.

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form.

But on August 12, at a press conference, the then Acting Internal Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiangi’ denied that police had shot and killed people. He stated, “I am not aware of anyone who has been killed by live bullets in this country. Those are rumours. People who loot, break into people’s homes, burn buses are not peaceful protesters.” Yet it is not that Matiangi’ did not have access to the details of the people killed, some of whose deaths have been recorded in government hospitals and by the media and human rights groups.

Jubilee learnt some of this shameless spin from Moi’s Kanu party. In 2000, when drought was ravaging parts of Northern Kenya, the then government minister, Shariff Nassir, denied there was drought when pressed in Parliament by one of the area MPs. A few days later, the government declared a famine in Kenya.

President Kenyatta says that fighting corruption will be a key pillar of his legacy. The Auditor General’s Office has done more than any other state organ to reveal the level of corruption in government agencies through audit reports. In an ideal world, you’d think that the president would consider the Auditor General’s Office as a key ally. But the president scoffed at the Auditor General’s plan to investigate the activities of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in relation to the alleged misuse of $2 billion Eurobond cash that Kenya raised in 2014. The president was quoted telling the Auditor General, “When you say that the Eurobond money was stolen and stashed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are you telling me that the Kenyan government and United States have colluded?” The president then insinuated that the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, was stupid. Never mind that the president’s remarks came during a State House anti-corruption summit. It is also likely that the story of the missing Eurobond money will be the story of Jubilee’s corruption.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

David Ndii wrote, “Jomo Kenyatta’s regime was corrupt, illiberal and competent. Moi’s was corrupt, illiberal and mediocre. Kibaki’s was corrupt, liberal and competent. So, Moi scores zero out of three. Jomo scores one out of three. Kibaki scores two out of three.”

The original sin after 2010 constitution was promulgated was when a court ruled that Kenyatta and Ruto could contest the 2013 elections despite being indicted by the ICC. This officially killed Chapter Six on leadership and integrity of the Katiba, which effectively set Kenya down the path of “anything goes”.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

Kanu and Jubilee have ruled Kenya longer than any other party, and in the process have created the Kenyatta and Moi family and business dynasties. When under pressure, it is not uncommon to see Kenyatta and Jubilee seek Moi’s eternal wisdom. The visits to Moi’s home are done at the exclusion of William Ruto, which sets up 2022 neatly as the battle between the princes and the hustler.

Raila was a key player in the 2002 elections, and in 2013, Ruto was a key player in defeating Raila. In 2022, Ruto could face Raila’s fate. While Ruto’s defeat could delight many, the techno-dignified political opportunism that is Jubilee, which is illiberal, incompetent and corrupt, will endure.

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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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Alice Yano: A Lawyer With Deep Connections to Politics

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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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