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The Investors That Stole Our Future: Uganda’s Illusory Fiscal Policies

10 min read.

With Uganda’s history of poor public administration and disastrous debt management, corruption, and increasing civil unrest and repression, what was the basis of the IMF’s optimism? The organisation has a permanent office in the Ministry of Finance and its headquarters sends multiple missions every year to monitor economic progress. To solve Uganda’s perennial economic distress, citizens must first understand the IMF’s mission in Uganda.

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The Investors That Stole Our Future: Uganda’s Illusory Fiscal Policies
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There was a time when the root causes of Uganda’s economic failure were so mercurial that one could never quite locate them. The evidence sometimes suggested incompetence; other times corruption; often a combination of the two. Examining the fiscal policy at a granular level reveals the method in the madness: there is now incontrovertible proof that incompetence is an essential part of – and is often allowed to flourish in order to facilitate – grand corruption. We are not talking about small players operating out of cramped government offices but about the country’s top leadership and their foreign and domestic partners.

In an old story, President Mobutu Sese Seko is said to have approached donors for assistance with Zaïre’s out-of-control external debt. By that time, his history of raiding the treasury was widely known and the donors facetiously suggested he lend the government the money they needed out of his personal resources. He is said to have answered, “I can’t trust them to pay me back.” (This is only funny when it is not happening in your own country.)

Uganda is in a similar situation. Unsustainable debt is rising in direct proportion to the wealth of the top leaders. When payment of the over UGX 3 trillion balance on over 20 loans (Table 1 below) commences in 2020, the country’s debt-to-revenue ratio will jump from 44% to 65%. In 2015, when Uganda’s debt repayments stood at 38% of GDP, between 26% and 36% of the population was undernourished. Undernourishment has made steady progress, rising by 1% a year between 2006 and 2011 and accelerating to two percentage points plus every year from 2011 (World Bank). Nothing has happened since 2016 to ensure undernourishment does not increase; in fact, it rose from 39% in 2015 to 41% in 2016. In contrast, world undernourishment fell 14 percentage points over the same period and is on a downward trend except for a short rise in 2015-2016.

Despite trends in the increasingly unsustainable loan portfolio, on the one hand, and erratic public administration on the other, the IMF has assessed Uganda as a low risk for external debt distress. It says the risk was not increased by significant risks stemming from domestic public and/or private external debt.

As a justification for further borrowing, President Yoweri Museveni and Ministry of Finance officials claim that the debt-to -GDP ratio is within the historically safe limit of under 50%. The Auditor General has been of the contrary view, saying debt levels are “unfavourable when debt payment is compared to national revenue collected which is the highest in the region at 54%.”

That argument has been overtaken by events. Current International Monetary Fund (IMF) projections show that debt-to-GDP will hit 49.5% in 2021. Furthermore, it is guaranteed to deteriorate as the outstanding balances on the loans will increase as the shilling continues to slide against the dollar and as further non-concessional (high-interest) loans are taken in the domestic market, such as the $104 million to be spent on security cameras and loans for ad hoc investments like the revival of Uganda Airlines at $388 million.

Table 1: Uganda's Unsustainable Debt

Table 1: Uganda’s Unsustainable Debt

Despite trends in the increasingly unsustainable loan portfolio, on the one hand, and erratic public administration on the other, the IMF has assessed Uganda as a low risk for external debt distress. It says the risk was not increased by significant risks stemming from domestic public and/or private external debt. (Debt Sustainability Analysis).

They went on to claim, “Uganda’s economic performance remains strong, but has moderated in recent years.” Further, “Government finances remain on a sound footing…” The only suggestion in the Debt Sustainability Analysis (DSA) that all may not be well (inserted no doubt as a basis for claims to due diligence to be made after the economy crashes) was “… though expenditure composition can be of concern.” Expenditure composition includes items not part of the National Development Plan e.g. a national airline and a network of security cameras. In the same year, the Auditor General pointed out a serious barrier to attaining development targets: loans were performing poorly. He could not have been clearer when he warned that interest payments were becoming unsustainable (Auditor General 2016 p. 14).

“Several loans appeared to be performing poorly, with some nearing expiry; while others reached the closing date without fully disbursing. As at 30th June 2016, committed but un-disbursed debt stood at UGX 18.1 trillion [approximately US$5 billion]. Such low levels of performance undermine the attainment of planned development targets and render commitment charges of UGX20.9 billion (US$5.9 million) paid in respect of undisbursed funds nugatory [i.e. wasteful or of no value] (Auditor General 2016, p.72).” In other words, borrowed funds were not being put to use.

The problem has persisted in 2017 and 2018. This gives the lie to the IMF’s DSA 2016 finding that Uganda is scaling up infrastructure for future economic growth. The IMF admitted a risk to growth goals would be “failure to realize the envisaged growth dividend from the increased investment is a key risk”. What they did not mention was that the contingency had already materialised. A 2015 special audit of the Uganda Support to Municipal Structure Development (USMID) project (financed with a $150 million loan) showed under-utilisation of loan funds accompanied by incomplete projects requiring funds. The risk is that idle balances will eventually be diverted, as has happened in Hoima Municipal Council.

We are not far from a full admission that Uganda is in debt distress although there are still the persistent and irrelevant claims of on-target economic growth (of 6.3%). Irrelevant because it was during the past periods of alleged high economic growth that universal primary education was degraded to the point where the drop-out rate was 60%.

The current situation is that 95% of the UGX100 billion disbursed under USMID for municipal development and capacity building grants remains idle (Auditor General 2018, p. 5). Understaffing in specialised technical areas is one reason municipalities are unable to utilise infrastructural development loans. (Understaffing is a result of a cap on recruitment enforced by the IMF.) Yet for the past three years the Treasury has only been able to release UGX417 billion of the UGX800 billion required annually to maintain the feeder roads so crucial to farmers (Auditor General 2017, p. 33).

Uganda’s fiscal policy is ‘a moving target’

In 2019 the IMF is leaning towards the Auditor General’s point of view. They now say that rising interest payments reduce resources available for education and health (human development). Their latest assessment states, “The current ratio of interest payments to revenue is comparable to what countries with high risk or in debt distress typically face.”

We are not far from a full admission that Uganda is in debt distress although there are still the persistent and irrelevant claims of on-target economic growth (of 6.3%). Irrelevant because it was during the past periods of alleged high economic growth that universal primary education was degraded to the point where the drop-out rate was 60%. During high economic growth, inequality, and especially rural-urban equality, deepened. High economic growth preceded the current phase of social unrest. According to the IMF, “In each of the last three macroeconomic assessments of Uganda, the projected debt path was revised upwards. Having a clear direction for fiscal policy would help budget planning and execution.”

Nevertheless, the IMF continues to claim that the risk of debt distress remains low, provided domestic revenue can be mobilised. The set target under the National Development Plan II and medium-term Sustainable National Development Plan is to increase the tax-to-GDP ratio from 14% to 16% by 2019/20. If this cannot be achieved through job creation, it can only translate into more taxes and austerity measures.

The question arises: With Uganda’s history of poor public administration and disastrous debt management, corruption, and increasing civil unrest and repression, what was the basis of the IMF’s optimism? The organisation has a permanent office in the Ministry of Finance and its headquarters sends multiple missions every year to monitor economic progress. To solve Uganda’s perennial economic distress, citizens must first understand the IMF’s mission in Uganda.

In any event, the grace period on over 20 loans expires in 2020 and debt is now of concern. On top of expenditure on projects in the Public Investment Plan, there is significant expenditure arising from unplanned projects, such as the revival of Uganda Airlines, requiring $380 million. Lubowa International Hospital, initially planned as a public-private partnership with Finasi (a commodities trader) it eventually became a contract for Finasi to build and operate a hospital funded 100% by the Government of Uganda.

Incompetence in industrialisation and job creation

A recent round of commissioning of factories and other infrastructure has proven that infrastructural development is a chimera. The Isimba Dam launched in March may generate but does not transmit power. Together with Karuma, to be launched later in the year, it cannot do so without further expenditure of $3.5 billion to extend the grid. The Nile Bridge had to undergo major remedial work owing to poor construction only days after commissioning. The president’s electioneering took in at least one factory many years old and employing a miniscule number of Ugandans. Nile Agro Industries Ltd has been producing soap, wheat flour, cooking oil, bottled water, lint bales, and fortification and industrial plastics since 1999. Yet it was commissioned and “launched” on 7th May 2019.

The Soroti Fruit Factory was founded in 2014 and funded by the government and a grant of $7.4 million from Korea. Last year’s audit listed the factory as un-operational after accumulated public investment of UGX 13,353,129,943. The factory was commissioned by the President on 13th April 2019. It was reportedly closed on 10th May owing to a lack of operating capital for fruit from about 1,000 farmers and salaries for the 123 Ugandan employees. The government’s investment arm, Uganda Development Corporation, has been advised annually for at least three years by the Auditor General against making investments without feasibility studies but in Soroti it was the usual case of ignoring professional advice and pandering to the president’s whims.

“The corporation incurred expenditure amounting to Shs.9,000,026,869 during the year in undertaking industrial development investments in the areas of fruits in Luwero, Soroti and processing in Kabale and Kisoro. However, the Corporation did not undertake investment strategic studies assessment prior to undertaking investments for purposes of assessing the marketability and commercial viability of the final products processed from fruits like mangoes, oranges and tea plantations. The investment may not achieve anticipated results.” (my emphasis) (Auditor General 2016 p. 519)

Apart from Soroti Fruit Factory, other warnings have related to Kampala Industrial and Business Park, Namanve, where UGX 1,000,000,000 for a feasibility study was diverted. Over UGX 131 billion is outstanding on loans for four industrial parks, including Namanve. Although National Information Technology Authority-Uganda (NITA-U) carried out a feasibility study for Commercialisation of the National Data Transmission Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) and E-government Infrastructure (EGI), it did not factor in the costs of its maintenance. “As a result, it was difficult to assess the economic sense of the project as Management lacked sufficient benchmark to assess the bid proposals on contract aspects such as the cost of maintaining the NBI, revenue sharing ratios and price of internet services.” (Auditor General, 2017, p. 53)

It is indicative of the general problem pointed out by the Auditor General, who concluded that ignoring planning procedures is a major weakness within the Ministry of Finance “and presents a risk of funding projects which are not feasible and are not aligned to the National Development Plan (NDP).”

New projects are required to undergo four stages prior to being included in the Public Investment Plan (PIP) and commencement: (i) Prepare a project concept in line with NDP, (ii) Prepare a Project Profile demonstrating key results, (iii) Undertake a pre-feasibility study, and (iv) Conduct a feasibility study. But the auditor found that “some projects obtained project codes and admission into the PIP without proper project vetting as stated in without vetting them”.

It is indicative of the general problem pointed out by the Auditor General, who concluded that ignoring planning procedures is a major weakness within the Ministry of Finance “and presents a risk of funding projects which are not feasible and are not aligned to the National Development Plan (NDP).” (Auditor General, 2017, p. 15)

Foreign direct investment

To attract foreign direct investment (FDI), many countries around the world privatised their telecommunications sectors – some voluntarily and others, like Uganda, under an IMF structural adjustment programme. In the UK in the 1990s, public awareness-raising of the move involved repeated assurances that after unbundling postal and telecoms services, 51% of shares in British Telecom would be sold to the private sector but with the proviso that 34.3% would be sold to the general public. Furthermore, in the interests of promoting share ownership, the shares were priced at £130, a price considered below their value.

Kenya sold its telecoms sector, reserving 60% of the shares for the Kenyan state, of which 30% were later sold directly to the public. The new entity, Safaricom, went on to become the most profitable private company in the East African region.

Cross the border into Uganda where income from the lucrative telecoms sector is enjoyed only by a narrow oligarchy. Although the government was to retain 49% of the shares in Uganda Telecom, it currently holds only 31%. Much has been written about how MTN went from being the second national operator to a virtual monopoly and regulator of the sector.

MTN is the biggest player, with 54% of the telecoms market. Only 5% of MTN shares are Ugandan-owned, (the Ugandan being an individual with board membership in at least two privatised entities, including the defunct Rift Valley Railway.) It is only in the past few months that the president began to press MTN to make some of its shares available to the public.

Uganda Telecom, the entity that was supposed to retain residual rights in the sector, was only created after Celtel and MTN (the first and second national operators) had been running for a while. This has meant that MTN has the technology to permit or bar new indigenous competitors from the market, which reportedly it does. Indigenous Ugandan start-up Ezeemoney, a mobile money platform designed to allow banking over different platforms (i.e. between MTN, Africell and other service providers), was awarded over two billion shillings in a suit against MTN for refusing to provide them with access to the network.

Tax evasion and illicit transfers

Returning to the objectives of privatisation and incentivising foreign direct investment, greater efficiency and cash inflows may have been achieved but the benefits have been annihilated by illicit outflows mainly facilitated through tax evasion.

Another 13 foreign investors have been found to have used a lacuna in the law to avoid taxes for years, a fact the IMF was in a position to know. Thirteen of the investors owe UGX 353.5 billion. Some have been beneficiaries of FDI incentives, another has been operating in Uganda since 1969 (and therefore not in need of incentives). One is in possession of the infrastructure that is the privatised Nytil textile manufacturing plant (founded in 1954). A fourteenth is a joint venture once touted as the only manufacturer of ARVs in Africa. It was founded to supply ARVs for domestic consumption and export to Burundi, the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Cameroon, Comoros, Namibia and Zambia. The majority shareholding is foreign-owned; the three major Ugandan shareholders own less than 10% of the shares and 18% were sold on the stock exchange in 2018. It turns out that the company may really be in the business of acquiring government tenders for a parent company in India.

In response to the discovery that opportunities to increase the tax-to-GDP ratio are being systemically undermined by tax evasion by investors, the Ministry of Finance this month tabled a proposal in Parliament to give the offenders a waiver of taxes owed on the basis that it would be unwise to drive FDI away by collecting the arrears.

Returning to the Mobutu story, it is not just African despots who have sufficient illicit funds to make a significant dent in their countries’ public debt; the taxes owed by foreign investors could clear it. MTN’s tax arrears (of UGX 2.8 trillion as extrapolated from data recovered during litigation) could clear 73.6% of the current UGX 3.4 trillion outstanding balance on the loans which Uganda will begin to repay in 2020.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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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Politics

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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