Ghai returned to Kenya in 2008, “with no expectations” of getting involved in constitutional work again. “We wanted to rest,” he says, remembering the decision that he and Cottrell Ghai took to settle in Nairobi. “We felt we were getting old.” Despite what he may have envisioned as a quiet life, however, the Ghais are never far from the limelight. Manji describes the Ghais’ life: “For all their living in Muthaiga in a nice house, all they do is work — and work and work and work.”
Ghai’s experience in and service to various nations have afforded him multiple opportunities to make a home outside of Kenya. “With his outstanding legal training, he could easily have developed ‘big man’ syndrome and sat in London and held court. He could’ve made himself an extremely nice life,” says Manji. Cottrell Ghai explains the decision to return to Kenya. “There was a conviction that he wanted to be Kenyan in Kenya; he still does feel pretty strongly Kenyan.”
Importantly, Ghai’s conception and quiet demonstration of his Kenyan identity has allowed him to carve out a special niche for himself in his home country. Indeed, Githongo credits Ghai’s ability to rise “above tribe” as one reason why Moi agreed to appoint him as Chair of the CKRC. “Yash made sense for Moi, who was in a political corner. He had no tribe but he was Kenyan. He was very sharp and very respected, but he wasn’t affiliated with any big ethnic groups. Moi, in his pure political, ruthless analysis, thought, ‘This is the right guy.’” Over the years, Ghai’s work with various communities around Kenya has cemented his reputation. “Yash transcends. People see him, ordinary people see him as just Yash,” Githongo says.
Ghai’s model of Kenyan-ness has inspired others. Says Manji, “We grew up in the Moi era, and we were told not to engage in politics. Keep your head down, say nothing. I tried once or twice and was told very clearly not to talk politics at the table. There was this Asian tendency to quietly get on with your life and don’t let anyone know your thinking. Growing up under Moi, you weren’t entirely sure there was any kind of contribution you could make. What I loved about Yash was that I was suddenly free to think and talk about Kenyan politics and be political. Through his authority, he gave me authority to be political. There was something there that liberated me. I saw a model of how to be Kenyan and Asian. He really showed me how to make a contribution, and one way in which he did that is by demonstrating how to feel Kenyan by transcending tribe.”
It is unsurprising that – since returning to Kenya – both Ghais have continued to dedicate much of their time and energy to constitutional work. Indeed, they continue to invest time and energy in the Kenyan Constitution, ever-dedicated to its power to effect change. Manji refers to Ghai as “a constitutional optimist and something of an idealist.” Since resigning from the CKRC, Ghai has continued to publicly write and speak about the Constitution. On many occasions, he has also advised the government on constitution-related issues and developments. His “Katiba Corner” in The Star, which he and Cottrell Ghai began in late 2013, continues to offer the latest analysis and commentary – from themselves and other experts – on constitution-related matters in Kenya.
Perhaps the Ghais’ most important contribution, however, and one that will house the professor’s legacy in Kenya for a long time to come, is the Katiba Institute (KI), an NGO dedicated to “achieving social transformation through the Constitution.” KI’s first Executive Director, Waikwa Wanyoike, recalls his enthusiasm for the position. “Yash is larger than life in academia and constitutional law. I knew his history quite well, and I knew he was very principled. He had gone into exile just because he didn’t want to compromise on his principles, and he had been extremely successful. There is no question that being able to work in an institution where Yash was the main person – for me – was icing on the cake. Who else would you want to work for with regard to constitutions in Kenya and globally? It was a moment of pride that I could associate myself with him and with an institute that he founded. Being able to take advantage of Jill as well, of her interest in and knowledge of law generally – again, that was a huge, huge bonus for me.”
KI is also a reflection of Ghai’s commitment to Kenya. There is a commitment to harnessing local expertise and building a strong base of highly skilled lawyers. Says Wanyoike, “How do you justify calling yourself an institute when you use consultants, when you aren’t a repository of expertise? We knew that, if we have the right people, even if we weren’t able to mobilize financial resources, we would still manage. We also wanted to build a new group of technical experts for the future. We saw ourselves as an extension of teaching institutions, a place where people could come and learn about real life problems.” This extends to more than the training of lawyers. KI’s Executive Assistant says, “Before KI, I didn’t understand the constitution, but now — working with him — I have learned a lot. I can say I am more knowledgeable about my rights and I can interpret some of the articles, despite not being a lawyer. He has impacted a lot of people in terms of trying to offer trainings to different communities and the world. A lot of people are more knowledgeable and they appreciate and have pride in Prof. for what he has done for this country.” The focus on technical expertise goes hand in hand with broad inclusion. Wanyoike describes KI’s desire to focus on groups that ordinarily would not get attention. More than half of KI’s lawyers are women, and they appear before the Supreme Court more than other female litigators.
True to Ghai’s spirit, KI fights hard to stay true to its own mission and priorities, relying as little on donors as possible. “The programming of KI is not driven by donors or grants. 60-75 percent of litigation is not reflected in activity reports for donors. It’s being creative, based on the needs and demands of the country at the moment.”
And it has worked. Says Manji, “What you see in Katiba is the most robust lawyers you can imagine. Yash has got an incredible eye for good lawyers. Waikwa is a really good example – he is Kenya’s most brilliant lawyer. Everyone at Katiba is the same — the starting point is great lawyers and great legal minds and everything else follows.”
Both Ghais continue to be a mentor to many, including Manji, who describes how the couple took her under their collective wing when she became the head of the British Institute of East Africa. “They were absolutely exemplary in looking after me. Any time I wanted advice or anything I ever asked, they did for me. They were just outstanding.” Speaking of Ghai specifically, she says, “He’s my teacher, as well as a mentor and an advisor. He’s the grandfather of everything we are trying to do. There are many of us who feel that.” Mutunga concurs. “When I became CJ, he was a great mentor and advisor. He was one of the scholars and judges who inducted the Supreme Court in Mount Kenya Safari Club (Yash used his contacts to get us these prominent jurists). His contribution to the development of progressive jurisprudence based on the 2010 Constitution is exemplary. His and Jill’s work at the Judiciary Training Institute has been legendary.”
The Ghais also continue to support KI. Says Wanyoike, “At an intellectual level, they have always been very present, but at an administrative level they have not. They have always given us a lot of autonomy to operate, while also creating as much time for us as we have needed. People told me that Prof. is difficult to work with, because he is headstrong, but that was never borne out in my experience. He insists on integrity and honesty, and as long as he has confidence that is what is driving you, he is not in your space. People don’t know this. He has so much deference and respect for people who work for him. If there is ever a difference of opinion between him and the staff, he will almost always defer to what staff have decided. He is extremely loyal to people who work with him. This is at all levels.”
Today, Ghai can often be found seated at the desk in the home office he shares with his wife, a large room whose walls, shelves and surfaces seem to spawn books. “It’s like a bomb of papers,” Githongo says with a laugh. “He is the uber big brain. Yash can stay up half the night and in the morning you have a written constitution… and it’s flawless. It’s astonishing stuff.” And when he is seated in front of his computer, referring from time to time to one or the other miniature pyramids of books surrounding him, he appears the quintessential professor. At certain moments, when he pulls out his old, dog-eared copy of the Kenyan Constitution – peppered with his hand-written notes in the margins – to point to key sections and emphasize his arguments, he remains the quintessential professor.
Most days, Cottrell Ghai is seated across from him. “We never realized the sheer power and importance of the role of Jill in the beginning,” Githongo recalls. “Jill came in a bit later, and when she became visible, people did not know how to place her. Then they realized that she’s as formidable a mind as Yash. She’s ferocious, totally big brained and knows her stuff. It’s a team, a very formidable team. I don’t think Yash would have made it this far, with the years of disappointments and betrayals, without her.”
Ghai agrees, crediting his wife as his partner in thinking, writing and editing. Even if it is not a jointly authored work, Ghai says, it is the product of “hours of discussion” with Cottrell Ghai. He is lucky, he says, to have such a valued professional partner in his wife. When asked about her career, Cottrell Ghai is dismissive. “I wasn’t that distinguished and I’ve never been that ambitious. I’ve always told Yash that the most interesting things I’ve done in my life have been because of him.”
Ghai also sees his children and grandchildren at least once a year, and he considers himself lucky to have made lasting peace with his ex-wife, who is now a friend. Vacations are sometimes extended family affairs. It is lucky, Ghai thinks, that it is possible to be one family in this way. Cottrell Ghai agrees, saying that seeing the children remains an important priority for her husband. She worries that he does not get more time with them. Ghai also maintains old relationships, taking the time to visit and vacation with his close friends, whenever possible. Whitford says, “I admire him to no end. I feel very lucky that he would regard me as a close friend. I certainly regard him as a close friend. We came from totally different upbringings, but we just hit it off. If he thinks well of me, I feel immensely grateful for that and flattered.”
One of his most recent projects has been support of social justice centres in Kenya. Wanyoike describes his commitment to these centres, which are based mainly in Kenya’s poor, informal settlements. “He has actually contributed a significant amount of money to establishing social justice centres, but he won’t take credit for it.” Kavoi describes the impact of this work on Kenya today. Ghai’s support has allowed the centres to maintain offices and it has also sent students to university. He uses his networks to link the centres to other like-minded organizations, helping promote their impact. Githongo describes such work as exemplary of Ghai’s independent spirit and deep-felt conviction for promoting rights, especially amongst those who are most disempowered. “Yash is a very frustrating figure for [the elites]. He is retired and is hanging out with Mathare Social Justice guys. He should be at the country club; that’s the model.”
Increasingly these days, Ghai expresses a desire to withdraw from public life. He is working on a biography of his personal hero, Chanan Singh. It is a project that means a great deal to him, both because of the great admiration he had for Singh and because he promised his best friend – Singh’s son – that he would do it. “In the last year, I feel age with a vengeance. Things I write take three or four times longer than they used to.” And yet he seems rejuvenated by a walk through his neighborhood, where he is a well-known and beloved figure, inevitably greeted and often thanked by strangers. “It is a bit like being married to a rockstar,” Cottrell Ghai says, describing the public attention. Wanyoike remembers being star-struck long ago, before he had officially met Ghai. “In 2010, I was visiting Kenya, and I went to Uchumi in Sarit. I saw him there, shopping with Jill, and I had this huge urge to introduce myself and say hi. But then I thought, ‘When you are that well-known, you don’t want people to come up to you in the store.’ So I disciplined myself.” Cottrell Ghai says, however, that her husband enjoys the attention. “It gives him a warm feeling; he feels appreciated by people in Kenya.”
It may seem strange that, after all the betrayals Ghai endured in his home country, he carries on with the same work, fighting for the same cause. According to Githongo, this is because Ghai’s work was always aimed at the common man. “When a watchman recognizes him, that’s what is more important for him, and that’s who he wrote the Constitution for.” He goes on, “Once Kenyans respect you for something, no one can take it away. The watchman on the road, the packers in the shops will give him that respect — not because he’s powerful or rich but because he has stood up for the people. Kenyans realize that the same people that have cheated them have cheated him. Ghai has been called “the man who solved the world,” a title at which he shakes his head. In Kenya, though, Githongo says Ghai is known as “mtu wa roho safi (a pure-hearted man). That’s the way ordinary people known him, describe him and appreciate him.”
Reflecting back on his career, Ghai says, “I always wanted to serve the people if I could. I have always been conscious that, if I have been doing something good, it’s because I probably had better opportunities than others.”
Githongo believes that Ghai’s work will continue to impact Kenya for generations to come. “His contribution to human rights is without equal. He is in the very fortunate position that people will appreciate him more and more as time passes. It’s a slow burn. Kenyans realize.” Manji agrees, remarking, “It’s not just in the books, or in the law courts. He protests in the streets! He’s got a real connection to ordinary people, and that to me is his contribution to human rights.”
Ghai’s work has not always made him popular, especially in Kenya. In fact, Ghai recently lamented certain politicians’ rhetoric, which blames the Constitution for problems that clearly are the result of elites’ unwillingness to respect the rule of law. Mutunga is not surprised. In fact, the former Chief Justice points out that Ghai was honored by the Queen of England for his work while his home country failed him. Mutunga refers to Matthew 13:57, a Bible verse that reads, “And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
“He continues to work against the grain,” Githongo says, “so his phone won’t ring. The moment the crisis comes, the phone will ring off the hook. All the hoodlums will call him then. He’s our fireman.”
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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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