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Green Blood: Journalists Killed or Silenced for Environmental Reporting

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Green Blood: Journalists Killed or Silenced for Environmental Reporting
Photo: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP
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In March 2017, Guatemalan fishermen noticed that some parts of the country’s largest lake had turned a strange reddish colour. Fearing that the apparent pollution would scare customers away from buying fish, they asked the local government to investigate.

Lake Izabal is near the Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel mine, which is owned by the Switzerland-based Solway Group. After weeks passed with no response, the locals became desperate. Hundreds of protestors from the closest town of El Estor blocked the roads that led to the mine, preventing ore deliveries to the port of Puerto Barrios. About 41 per cent of the nickel mined was slated for export to Ukraine.

Twelve days into the blockade, on May 27, clashes broke out after the government broke an agreement to meet with the fishermen. Riot police fired tear gas and dispersed the protesters; multiple gunshots were reported.

Fisherman Carlos Coc Maaz was shot and killed that day. His lifeless body lay on the road for hours, according to his widow, Cristina Xol Pop. “We called the prosecutor’s office to pick up his body, but they didn’t arrive,” she told Forbidden Stories. “He had already spent half a day lying on the ground, so we picked him up. We took him home.”

The prosecutor of the Human Rights Office, Hilda Pineda, told reporters that an investigation about possible police involvement was ongoing. Authorities initially denied that anyone was killed that day, but local journalists Carlos Choc and Jerson Xitumul with Prensa Comunitaria took photos and a video showing that a protestor had indeed been shot.

Barely a month after the clashes, the prosecutor’s office accused the journalists, along with five fishermen, of six offences: threats, instigation to commit a crime, illicit association, illicit meeting and demonstrations, damages, and illegal detention. According to the indictment, the reporters allegedly participated in a protest in which four Solway workers were held illegally for several hours.

Xitumul was arrested, and both journalists faced harassment and threats.

At least 13 journalists have been killed while reporting on environmental stories around the world in the past decade, and 16 more suspicious deaths are being investigated, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Forbidden Stories – a consortium of 40 journalists from 15 media outlets, including OCCRP – also found that journalists investigating environmental issues often face arrest, harassment and violence.

“When journalists are reporting on environmental issues, they are often reporting on companies or corrupt actors who are in complete alliance with the government,” says Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

At least 13 journalists have been killed while reporting on environmental stories around the world in the past decade, and 16 more suspicious deaths are being investigated, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

“This means that their enemies become some of the most dangerous people in the world, and I’m hard put to think of a category of investigative reporters who are routinely dealing with more dangerous actors than environmental journalists,” Shapiro says.

In Choc’s case in Guatemala, a group of armed men attacked his sister’s home and started shooting. The journalist went into hiding for several months and was forced to sell his camera and motorbike to support his family. He kept the computer where he stores his work.

Trouble in Tanzania

Forbidden Stories conducted investigations in Guatemala, India and Tanzania this year to report on the dangers journalists face when reporting on multinational mining companies.

In Tanzania, local and foreign journalists have struggled to report on the impact of a remote gold mine owned by Acacia Mining, whose majority shareholder is Canadian mining industry giant Barrick Gold Corp.

“The North Mara Gold Mine is more than a thousand kilometres from Dar es Salaam, where almost the entire press is [based], and therefore it is very difficult to have reporters keeping [tabs] on what is happening in these remote places,” said Tundu Lissu, a Tanzanian opposition politician and lawyer who previously represented small-scale miners in the region.

Residents near the mine have suffered from the environmental consequences of gold mining for more than a decade. The industrial mining techniques produce harmful heavy metals, high levels of which have been found in the local water supply.

Mark Nega, who worked in the area as a district medical officer in 2013, said he saw about six patients apparently affected by the water near the mine. “They go to wash [in] that water [near] the mining area and they get [a very bad skin reaction].”

In 2009, a study found high levels of heavy metals and cyanide in the mine’s vicinity. Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead are frequently found near gold mining sites in elevated concentrations.

In May, authorities fined Acacia Mining $2.4 million for allegedly violating the country’s environmental regulations and for failing to comply with government directives to fix the mine’s leaking tailings storage facility where waste is kept.

In 2009, a study found high levels of heavy metals and cyanide in the mine’s vicinity. Heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead are frequently found near gold mining sites in elevated concentrations.

Locals have also alleged human rights abuses for years.

Samuel Muchugu Wambura, a father of six from Kerende village, was killed in 2016 by an officer of the Tanzanian police force, which contributes to the mine’s security, after he crept onto the property searching for gold. Local artisanal miners lost their primary source of income in 2002 when the North Mara Gold Mine began commercial production.

Wambura’s death came about two years after Acacia Mining settled out of court with people from the region who sued the company over alleged injuries and fatalities at the mine, and after Acacia announced its commitment “to promoting human rights and appropriate conflict resolution practices.”

In a statement, Barrick Gold said it doesn’t exercise operational control over Acacia and that it encourages those who do to implement policies and programmes in line with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Acacia told Forbidden Stories that “the Mine has not yet received any supporting reports, findings or technical data in relation to the environmental protection order or the recent statements by the Minister of State in the Vice President’s Office for Union Affairs and Environment or the Minister for Minerals.”

Tanzania’s Minister in the Vice President’s Office for Union Affairs and Environment, January Makamba, told OCCRP that part of the blame for the mine’s negative impact on neighbouring communities lies with the government.

“It’s been ten years [since we noticed the problem] and the tailing storage facility is still polluting, is still seeping,” he said, referring to the Acacia waste storage facility that was sanctioned. “We have a bit of responsibility and part of our blame is to consistently believe what the mine was telling us.”

Makamba placed most of the responsibility with Acacia, whose “non-compliance, over a long period of time, of government’s directives […] have been all ignored,” he said.

A difficult environment for journalists

But the government has also created a difficult environment for journalists to act as watchdogs. In Tanzania, press freedom has been on the decline, especially since the election of President John Magufuli in 2015. The country currently ranks 118th out of 180 on Reporter Without Borders’ World Freedom Index, dropping 43 places since 2015.

Tanzania’s 2015 Cybercrimes Act authorised imprisonment for at least three years, a fine of not less than 5 million Tanzanian shillings ($2,175), or both for knowingly publishing information or data deemed “false, deceptive, misleading, or inaccurate,” which has led to prosecutions of reporters and regular citizens.

“Since coming into force, the law has been invoked to persecute dozens of individuals and journalists,” civil society groups wrote in a 2018 statement to the president. “In one week alone, five private citizens were charged under the Cybercrimes Act for statements made on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms, including a three-year sentence handed down to a private citizen for insulting President John Magufuli on Facebook.”

Tanzania’s 2015 Cybercrimes Act authorised imprisonment for at least three years, a fine of not less than 5 million Tanzanian shillings ($2,175), or both for knowingly publishing information or data deemed “false, deceptive, misleading, or inaccurate”…

In March, the East African Court of Justice ruled that parts of Tanzania’s 2016 Media Services Act — which civil society groups say allows the government to decide who is a journalist and which criminalises defamation and so-called sedition — violate the East Africa Community treaty’s commitment to good governance, principles of democracy and the rule of law. The court directed Tanzania’s government to bring the Act in line with the treaty.

“There is great fear among journalists nowadays – especially those who criticise the government,” says Jabir Idrissa, a journalist from Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. Around two years ago he was working for the Swahili-language weeklies MwanaHalisi and Mawio, both of which have since been banned by the government and are part of the same newspaper group. In 2009, he started to report on environmental pollution in Tarime, the district where the North Mara gold mine is located.

“We had a long discussion in the newsroom when we were choosing which stories to [go] with,” Idrissa says. Reporting on them was deemed risky because “the top big shots did not want the public to know about it – what was inside the contracts between Acacia and the government.” Even so, they went ahead and published. “Journalism is a job of telling the truth to the people,” he says.

In June 2017, Mawio published an article linking two former presidents to alleged irregularities in mining deals decades earlier. The same day, Tanzania’s minister of information, culture, arts and sports, Harrison Mwakyembe, banned the newspaper for two years.

The editor-in-chief of Mawio, Simon Mkina, told a news agency that he began receiving threatening phone calls. Idrissa lost his job and was unable to find work in journalism again. He started working in a clothing shop in Zanzibar so he could support his children.

Forbidden Stories has identified a dozen journalists who have been arrested, threatened or censored by Tanzanian authorities for reporting on mining.

“In emerging economies where people depend on natural resources and those natural resources are very valuable to industry or to the government, that can become a very dangerous situation for journalists who are covering the extraction of those natural resources,” said Meaghan Parker, executive director of the U.S.-based Society of Environmental Journalists.

‘A real chilling effect’

The problems of mining-related pollution and journalistic risk aren’t confined to Africa and Latin America. Indian businessman S. Vaikundarajan heads V.V. Mineral, which extracts more beach sand than is allowed by his company’s permit in India, according to an expert report submitted to the Madras High Court.

“About, say, 85 percent to 90 percent of beach sand mining, legal and illegal, is monopolised by this one family,” says Sandhya Ravishankar, a journalist based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where illegal sand mining is rampant.

Forbidden Stories has identified a dozen journalists who have been arrested, threatened or censored by Tanzanian authorities for reporting on mining.

In a statement to Forbidden Stories, S. Vaikundarajan indicated that “stoppage of mining until the inspection is completed does not amount [to a] ban of mining.” Regarding the expert report filed in court, Vaikundarajan indicated that “all the allegations made … is without any basis and not in accordance with [the] law.”

It is estimated that between September 2013 and 2017, over 2 million metric tonnes of sand minerals were exported from Tamil Nadu, despite a temporary ban on sand mining in the state, according to the report. Importers included construction material companies from around the world, including from the United States and Germany.

In a report published in May, the U.N. Environment Programme said that sand “extraction in rivers has led to pollution, flooding, lowering of water aquifers and worsening drought occurrence.”

Ravishankar started reporting on illegal beach sand mining in 2013. After she published an investigation in India’s Economic Times in 2015, a defamation suit was filed within hours, she says, and together with the newspaper she was personally named as a defendant.

Ravishankar struggled to find an outlet that would publish further reporting, at least until 2017 when the Indian non-profit news website The Wire finally published her investigation.

The journalist says she received threatening phone calls, was followed, and had CCTV footage of her meeting a source posted on the Internet.

In a letter to the Chennai City Commissioner of Police dated Sept. 24, 2018, Ravishankar wrote that she had “strong reason to believe that a senior IPS [Indian Police Service] officer is colluding with the mining mafia in order to follow me, film and photograph me.”

Despite the intimidation, Ravinshakar says “not for a second” did she think about stopping the investigation.

Such tactics and attacks on journalists reporting environmental stories can have “a real chilling effect,” says Saul Elbein, an American journalist who has reported on murders of environmental journalists for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

“As more and more of the world lurches toward environmental crisis, there is less and less meaningful reporting coming out of the rural places where environmental crime happens,” Elbein told Forbidden Stories. “The lights, in other words, are going out just as they’re most needed.”

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Politics

The Dictatorship of the Church

From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.

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The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.

Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.

Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.

Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.

The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.

Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health servicesCritics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”

Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.

A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.

Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.

In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique

Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.

Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.

The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.

A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.

More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.

In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.

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

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Politics

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

The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.

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Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.

“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”

Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.

Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.

At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.

Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.

Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned.  US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.

The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.

AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.

Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”

Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.

I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.

Sweet home Alabama! 

An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.

Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.

He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.

We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.

What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.

Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked

King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.

In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.

Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.

Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”

Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.

Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.

“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.

The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.

According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.

A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.

The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.  “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.

These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.

The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.

The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.

The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.

The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”

With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:

And this bird, you cannot change

Lord help me, I can’t change….

Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.

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Politics

Breaking the Chains of Indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.

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Breaking the Chains of Indifference
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They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.

This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”

Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.

Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.

Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.

Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.

The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no  retribution against the military for their actions.

During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.

Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.

Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.

Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.

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

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