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Déjà Vu: Eerie Similarities Between the Congolese and Kenyan Elections

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It is time for citizens to reclaim elections and the democratic power that comes through the polls. For far too long, the state has been in control of a process that is, at its heart, about the people.

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Déjà Vu: Eerie Similarities Between the Congolese and Kenyan Elections
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On Thursday, January 24, Felix Tshisekedi became the fifth president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Like many others in the region’s recent history, his was a contested victory, its legitimacy marred by suspicion regarding a range of issues throughout the electoral cycle, as well as by damning evidence that his main competitor, Martin Fayulu, another opposition candidate, was the true victor.

Tshisekedi’s inauguration, delayed for three days as controversy over the legitimacy of the results raged, was notable for significant gaps in attendance. The powerful Catholic Church, whose observers disputed the legitimacy of Tshisekedi’s victory, was absent. Representatives of Fayulu’s coalition also declined to be present. The European Union merely “noted” the result, and the African Union, usually reluctant to express any serious disagreement with members’ official results, also declined to congratulate Tshisekedi.

There was one foreign dignitary there, though: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. His lone presence was striking, a vivid reminder of the contention that has marked all four of the elections in which he has participated. Indeed, from his vantage point in the audience, President Kenyatta may have experienced a case of déjà vu. It is, after all, difficult to look past the multiple similarities that marred both of the most recent Congolese and Kenyan election cycles.

In addition to a slew of irregularities in the lead-up to election day, civil society and opposition candidates in both countries provided hard evidence of important variations between official announced outcomes and what had been shown to the public. In both cases, electoral victories did not correspond to election results.

It is now possible to “win” elections without garnering the most votes; democratic elections have given way to electoral coups.

Hope deferred

The most recent Congolese and Kenyan electoral cycles began in a charged atmosphere, alive with hope and anticipation of change. In the DRC, the 2018 election was a long-awaited milestone: it marked the end of Joseph Kabila’s 18-year rule and was a first chance for the transfer of political power through democratic means. Despite ongoing violence and instability in some parts of the country, as well as Kabila’s moves to ensure his continued influence the country’s politics, citizens were highly engaged. In fact, the Catholic Church (CENCO) mobilised and deployed more than 40,000 observers around the country in a rigorous observation exercise.

The most recent Congolese and Kenyan electoral cycles began in a charged atmosphere, alive with hope and anticipation of change. In the DRC, the 2018 election was a long-awaited milestone: it marked the end of Joseph Kabila’s 18-year rule and was a first chance for the transfer of political power through democratic means.

Vibrant campaigns were also inspiring, and two of the three leading candidates were opposition figures. Two days before the election, one of them – Martin Fayulu – was polling with 47 per cent of voters’ support, almost double that of the next most popular candidate, opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi. New York University’s Congo Research Group described the results as indicative of an electorate “eager for change.”

In 2017, Kenya’s citizens were similarly hopeful. Months of street protests, civil society advocacy campaigns, court battles and a joint parliamentary review of electoral administration had reformed significant parts of the electoral process. In fact, hard-won, new leadership at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), more fully integrated biometric voter registration and identification kits, rules requiring the IEBC to honour polling station-level results, and the creation of an online portal promising to show results forms in real time had renewed public faith in the credibility of the electoral process.

In both contexts, though, hope quickly eroded as it became clear that key parts of the electoral cycle had been taken over by power-hungry elites who used the trappings of elections to engineer their own “victories”.

State violence

Although a broad array of technical irregularities contributed to low electoral integrity in the DRC and Kenya, it is critical to remember that the state’s use of violence to intimidate, threaten and silence the public’s questioning and criticism exerted an insidious influence over the entirety of both processes.

In Kenya, the violent repression of peaceful protesters began as early as 2016, when security forces descended on anti-IEBC demonstrators. In 2017, the electoral cycle was bloodily punctuated by incidents that included the murder of infants and violent house-to-house operations in opposition areas.

In the DRC, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over reports of the state’s use of excessive force, including live bullets, against opposition rallies. Human Rights Watch also reported the state’s use of arbitrary detention of opposition party activists, the firing of teargas and live ammunition to break up largely peaceful opposition rallies, and the closing of an international border to prevent a presidential aspirant from filing candidacy papers. Six months before election day, ongoing repression prompted the Catholic Church to write to the African Union. Its letter described “a crisis of confidence” in the electoral process.

The use of state-sanctioned violence indicated the authorities’ complete unwillingness to engage with the people; it was clear that elections would not be fair.

Voter registration 

It was clear from early on in the process that something was amiss. In fact, registration processes in both countries revealed how deeply problematic political and logistical contexts – both of which presented significant challenges to inclusive processes – cast an early pall on the legitimacy of elections. In the DRC, rebel groups attacked DRC electoral commission (CENI) officials and attempted to prevent certain groups from registering. CENI itself was accused of incompetence, discriminating against certain ethnic groups, and accepting bribes in return for illegal registrations. In Kenya, certain minorities described their struggles to obtain the national identity cards that are necessary for voter registration, a process which has taken some individuals upwards of five years. Research revealed that “special vetting procedures,” which essentially ensured that IDs would not be processed, are discriminatorily applied to ethnic minorities. Registration was also marred by the continued use of the much-maligned “green book” and an audit that used sub-standard methodology and that failed to make its full report publicly accessible.

When the final voters’ rolls were released, there were more problems. In the DRC, an audit of the voter register revealed that the records of more than 6.5 million voters (16.6 per cent) lacked all ten fingerprints. It was reminiscent of the 2013 Kenyan election, when a “special list” of approximately 36,000 registered voters, also lacking fingerprints, appeared during the Supreme Court trial challenging the integrity of the election. In both cases, the election commission had failed to be forthright about the existence of such lists. In the DRC, five political parties demanded that voters lacking fingerprints be removed from the rolls altogether; protesters agreed. In 2017, the Kenyan voter register was similarly contentious, marked by the presence of, for example, more than a million records of deceased voters, thousands of incorrect records, and tens of thousands of duplicate records.

The courts 

The Congolese and Kenyan processes both concluded with court cases challenging election results, and in both cases there was suspicion of serious executive interference. In the DRC, the Constitutional Court, made up of Kabila’s close allies, dismissed Fayulu’s petition as “unfounded” and claimed that it had failed to prove any inaccuracies in the results. The Court’s ruling was made in spite of widely reported evidence that Fayulu had won 60 per cent of the vote.

When the final voters’ roll was released, there were problems. In the DRC, an audit of the voter register revealed that the records of more than 6.5 million voters (16.6 per cent) lacked all ten fingerprints. It was reminiscent of the 2013 Kenyan election, when a “special list” of approximately 36,000 registered voters, also lacking fingerprints, appeared during the Supreme Court trial challenging the integrity of the election.

In Kenya, the Supreme Court boldly nullified the results of the August election. Its decision hinged on evidence of fraudulent forms and the IEBC’s refusal to comply with court orders that it open its servers for inspection. Although the petitioners in the October repeat election case also demonstrated evidence of irregular forms and differences between the IEBC’s “official” results and what the Commission had posted on the public portal, the Supreme Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence.

This ruling came after President Kenyatta made his intentions with regard to the Court clear. In fact, in the aftermath of the nullification, he publicly referred to the judges as “crooks” and promised to “revisit” the judiciary. Insecurity heightened days before the fresh election in October, when Deputy Chief Justice Mwilu’s driver was shot and seriously wounded. One day before the election, Chief Justice David Maraga announced that the Court, which had failed to achieve quorum, would be unable to hear a case that sought to postpone the elections.

By exerting influence over the judiciary, the state not only protected certain elites’ victories, it also controlled the narrative, establishing a certain amount of legitimacy around what would otherwise be a questionable result at best.

Equipment

The use of electoral technology also tainted both elections. In the case of Kenya, post-election investigations have made it clear that technology was little more than a tool for elites’ personal enrichment. Procurement scandals tainted the reliability of the equipment as well as its immunity to external hacking and interference. The reliability of digital systems became even more doubtful when, days before the August election, the IEBC’s head of IT was found murdered; his case has yet to be solved. Indeed, it was unsurprising when the electronic results transmission failed – just as it had in 2013 – and the IEBC once again turned to the manual collection of more than 40,000 paper forms from around the country.

In the DRC, voters were also suspicious of technology. In fact, public protests called for authorities to abort the idea. Days before the election, a fire destroyed 70 per cent of the machines slated to be used in Kinshasa; authorities suspected arson. CENI’s decision to use such technology, especially in light of poor infrastructure to support it, was questionable. In Kenya, the IEBC even attempted (unsuccessfully) to justify its abandonment of the results transmission system by claiming that the lack of 3G connectivity in some locations made it impossible for the system to work.

What has become apparent is that technology, while claiming to increase the credibility of elections, actually does more to build a wall between electoral processes and the voters. In fact, the complexity of digital systems makes them inherently inaccessible to the average voter. It is thus easier for manipulation to occur and go undetected.

Voting and results 

Kenya and the DRC also restricted voting altogether for some citizens. In the DRC, roughly 1.2 million voters in three opposition strongholds were barred from casting their ballots because of health risks and security threats. In Kenya, voting in the October presidential election was first postponed and then cancelled altogether in 27 constituencies; nine per cent of registered voters were thus disenfranchised.

The last straw in both cases, however, was the state of the results. In the DRC, the powerful Catholic Church deployed more than 40,000 observers to polling stations across the country and found that election day was marred by the delayed opening of polling stations, the establishing of stations in prohibited areas, and problems with voting machines. It also scrutinised results forms, finding that Fayulu won 60 per cent of the vote, making him the clear victor. The African Union and the European Union both “noted” Tshisekedi’s apparent victory, pointedly choosing to withhold any congratulations.

What has become apparent is that technology, while claiming to increase the credibility of elections, actually does more to build a wall between electoral processes and the voters. In fact, the complexity of digital systems makes them inherently inaccessible to the average voter. It is thus easier for manipulation to occur and go undetected.

Kenya’s domestic observers also found multiple problems on the day of the election—in August and in October — including delayed opening of polling stations, insufficient materials in the stations, violence, malfunctioning voter identification kits, and problems with reliability of the voter register. These issues were compounded by evidence of highly questionably polling station forms, which were rife with errors. Forms featured mathematical inconsistencies, missing information, altered figures, the lack of IEBC signatures, and irregular printing. In fact, petitioners’ scrutiny of October results forms revealed that the IEBC’s “official” forms differed from forms that had been posted on the public portal and submitted to petitions as part of the Supreme Court case. Although these problems were sufficient for the Court to nullify the August elections, the Court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to annul the October polls.

Clearly, results have little value anymore.

Reclaiming elections

It is time for citizens to reclaim elections and the democratic power that comes through the polls. For far too long, the state has been in control of a process that is, at its heart, about the people.

First, it is critical for voters to demand some basic minimum standards of election administration. This begins with a clear and verifiable record of results. In Kenya, the IEBC has failed to publish polling station-level results for any of the elections it has overseen, leaving the public without the means to analyse, understand, and validate their own votes. In the DRC, CENI has to yet to publish polling station-level results.

Election results go hand in hand with voter registration details. In the aftermath of the August election, Kenya’s IEBC announced voter registration totals that differed from the officially gazetted totals; civil society questions about the differences remain unanswered. In the aftermath of the October repeat election, a summation of the county-level numbers of registered voters again showed differences. Public demands for greater transparency should start here; resulting questions and clarification will reveal the way forward in terms of urgent reforms.

Second, a re-engaged citizenry should think deeply about what elections mean and how to modify laws and practice to shape polls into participatory, meaningful exercises. This kind of evaluation begins with and is based upon the premise that elections are not a privilege; they are universal rights and it is the state’s duty to facilitate voters’ access to and participation in them.

It is time for citizens to reclaim elections and the democratic power that comes through the polls. For far too long, the state has been in control of a process that is, at its heart, about the people.

If voters understand elections as public services, as part of what governments owe their citizens, they may understand the importance of rethinking the status quo. This means questioning the very nature of political interaction. Elections do not have to be divisive, dangerous affairs that include “zoning,” hate speech and highly unequal playing fields. In fact, a shift away from the first-past-the post could incentivise and encourage politicians to broaden their support bases and adopt more moderate political platforms. In the long term, such a system could help bring voters on extreme ends of political divides closer together.

Third, citizens should demand more from their elected representatives. In an age of advanced digital technology and increasingly diverse ways of being in touch, the public may be able to interact with representatives on a more regular basis, questioning decisions and tracking things like parliamentary voting patterns. Such tools could enhance accountability and arm voters with better information for their future voting decisions. Widespread use of such tools could also result in more policy-oriented parties.

Finally, citizens can and should be proactive about claiming their space throughout the electoral process. This may involve watching and questioning things like boundary delimitation, voter registration and decisions about the use of technology. The more questions people raise over time, the greater the chances that electoral processes will become easier to understand and more transparent.

Votes matter; it’s time to make sure that results do, too.

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Seema Shah is an elections expert with experience in North America, Asia and Africa. She holds a doctorate in Political Science, and her research focuses on electoral politics, with an emphasis on electoral integrity and electoral violence.

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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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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