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SportPesa: It’s Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya’s Billion Dollar Sports Betting Curse

9 min read.

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

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SportPesa: It's Time for This Kleptocracy to End Kenya's Billion Dollar Sport Betting Curse
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Today, The Guardian publishes an investigation we have carried out with them into Kenya’s biggest betting company, SportPesa. With its name emblazoned on the shirts of Premier League club Everton FC and a Formula One racing team, SportPesa is Kenya’s most powerful gambling firm – operating in a sector that sucks $2bn from Kenyans every year.

Its shareholders include Bulgarian businessmen, one of whom, Guerassim Nikolov, has a background in casinos and about whom historic concerns were raised in the Bulgarian media, which he vehemently denies. Its corporate structure is opaque. Our reporter, Lionel Faull, worked with Bivol, the Bulgarian investigative website, and The Guardian, to examine the inner workings of SportPesa. That piece is here.

Lionel also dug into the effect the gambling epidemic is having on Kenya’s youth. Here he reports on how one student activist became a victim of gambling addiction but who is now spearheading a campaign to bring about meaningful regulation. The activist also wants to see there is proper treatment for the hundreds of thousands of young addicted Kenyans who need help after having been lured into betting away money they can ill afford to lose.

As part of their lucrative five-year deal with SportPesa, Everton played a pre-season match in Kenya this month

In 2017, a poll of African millennials revealed that Kenya’s youth are the biggest gamblers on the African continent.

A year later I prepared to travel to Nairobi to research a story about SportPesa. We at Finance Uncovered were interested in its stunning success. Founded and run by politically connected Bulgarian businessmen in Nairobi in 2014, it is now the biggest of Kenya’s mushrooming sports betting companies. And as we report with the Guardian today, so successful has it been exploiting the gambling craze in Kenya it has opened a European headquarters in the UK.

While investigating, I was struck by the almost total lack of any comprehensive data about the wider industry in Kenya and its millions of punters.

Sure, multiple news articles celebrated the rags-to-riches tales of jackpot winners, some of whom just as suddenly revert to rags. Others narrated horrifying individual anecdotes of gambling addiction, depression and suicide.

The gambling regulatory authority’s online presence amounted to a single sub-page of the interior ministry’s website and there was seemingly no organisation offering tailored counselling to problem gamblers.

It was as if a vast, silent vacuum had settled in the gaps between the sports betting billboards which peered down on Nairobi’s scurrying pedestrians.
Finally, someone referred me to a gambling awareness website which was run on a volunteer basis by Nelson Bwire, a 24-year old economics student at Kenyatta University.

“A way of life”

I took the highway north out of the city to Bwire’s campus, past the football stadium that had recently welcomed English side Hull City FC for a SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match against Kenya’s top club team, Gor Mahia.

As we strolled along the university’s shrub-lined walkways, Bwire told me how he became addicted to sports betting.

It was 2013 and he was fresh out of high school, hanging out with mates and killing time on PlayStation.

One of them boasted how he had won money on a football match and showed Bwire how he could send cash via the ubiquitous mobile money platform M-Pesa to a website called JustBet, the only online sports betting platform in Kenya at the time.

“On my very first bet I put in KShs200 (£1.50) and won KShs4,800 (£35),” Bwire recalls. “I bet on four teams to win. I’ll never forget them. It was Swansea, Stoke, Arsenal and West Brom.”

The win was both a blessing and a curse: “It got me thinking this could be a way of life. It was a good experience, it seemed like fun. You could watch your team playing, and actually earn money doing it.”

“You want to become rich, doing nothing. You want shortcuts in life, and that’s your shortcut.

“As I continued betting, everything increased. The amount of bets, the amount of money, the amount of time. With friends, on my phone, with the room-mates I was living with. Most of us used to bet.

“After about a year and a half, I began to realise that none of us had money because the money we had, it goes to betting.”

Bwire estimated that over the 18-month period he was an avid gambler, he spent around KShs100,000 (£750) on football bets. To put this spending in context, his annual course tuition fee in 2015 was between KShs100,000-120,000 (£750-£900).

“The money I was betting with came from previous wins, pocket money from my parents, and other side jobs I was doing,” he explained.

“Loan sharks”

By late 2015, Bwire recalled that many sports betting companies had burst onto the scene, including SportPesa, and were advertising “vigorously” across Kenya. They were also active in and around the university, handing out flyers on campus and in the neighbouring estates where students live.

“I started to read stories in the media about people committing suicide, people gambling their fees, their rent money. And you also see the kind of life that gambling is sucking out of you. You are waking up and all you are planning is to bet. Whatever winnings you have in your betting account, you don’t even consider taking it out. You use it to bet again. It reached the point that I just called it quits.”

He also noticed how gambling was taking over other students’ lives. “You would go into the computer labs to do some research, or finish an assignment, and you would see screen after screen where students were just browsing sports betting sites,” he said.

“Students were borrowing money from loan sharks at predatory interest rates to fund their habit, and handing over their laptops or their national identity cards as collateral.”

Problem gambling

In 2016 Bwire initiated a campus-wide survey to gauge the extent of gambling among his fellow students.

It found that half of male students and one-third of females surveyed bet more than once a week; and that nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of problem gambling behaviour. [see sidebar].

He later wrote a proposal to the university about how to tackle problem gambling on campus and launched a gambling awareness campaign working closely with student counsellors.

Nelson Bwire (second right) with fellow gambling addiction awareness activists and student counsellors, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya (July 2018).

“Gambling is not something that I would want to see banned. No, I don’t take that hard line. But I think people should be aware of the risks and take responsible decisions,” Bwire said.

Soon to be an economics graduate, Bwire mused: “Right now Africa is growing, yes. But gambling problems will suppress African growth. The capital flight of gambling winnings that are going from Kenya to other places, that money should be in people’s hands. It should be in entrepreneurs’ hands. It should be in students’ hands.”

Shifting ground

Exactly a year after speaking to Bwire, I took the same road out of Nairobi, past the same stadium preparing to host another SportPesa-sponsored exhibition match, this time featuring Everton FC.

A hundred and fifty kilometres beyond the capital, deep in the countryside, SportPesa’s blue-and-white branding is plastered all over humble general shops in small roadside villages.

While SportPesa is the biggest player in Kenya, there are several others such as Betin, Premier Bet, 1X Bet and the UK-based Betway, which sponsors West Ham United in the English Premier League.

Huge billboards for betting companies greet you as you drive into bigger towns.

The inside sports pages of the newspaper I bought are filled with betting adverts, giving the day’s odds on matches from minor leagues in faraway countries.

But, after half a decade making billions in a largely unregulated environment, the ground is shifting underneath the betting industry’s feet.

A Gaming Bill has been introduced to Parliament that would overhaul a regulatory framework that was originally drafted in 1966.

Fred Matiang’i, the interior minister with a bulldog reputation, has given betting companies a month to settle their tax bills.

Citing a statistic that half a million Kenyan youth have been blacklisted for borrowing money they cannot repay, debt which Matiang’i attributed mostly to the betting craze, he declared: “This is a sector we must regulate.”

Last week, Matiang’i made good his threat when the betting regulator suspended 27 betting firms’ operating licences – including SportPesa – for alleged non-payment of taxes.

Safaricom, the mobile phone company which processes most of the mobile money transactions used to bet, was ordered to withhold their services to the blacklisted companies, and punters were given 48 hours to withdraw their money from their betting e-wallets.

The directives are thought to affect the majority of Kenya’s 12-million betting account holders, interrupting the flow of an estimated $2bn annually from their pockets to the industry.

SportPesa and others have protested vehemently, publishing their most recent tax compliance certificates in the press. SportPesa also pointed to a court order it obtained allowing it to continue operating pending finalisation of a dispute over payment of a percentage of punters’ winnings in tax.

Responding to suggestions about the rise of problem gambling in Kenya, the company told The Guardian it was a socially responsible business that placed a priority on local sports and community work.

In the midst of this febrile atmosphere, I give Bwire a call to find out how he’s doing and what he thinks of the clampdown.

Bwire has now left Kenyatta University, his graduation ceremony is later this month.

He continues to run his gambling awareness campaign on a part-time voluntary basis, but since we last spoke, his ambitions have grown: he is now preparing for it to go national.

He has registered a company, the Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, and held a series of meetings with the betting regulator, urging them to introduce a countrywide gambling awareness campaign programme.

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

Nelson Bwire [R], founder of the newly-registered Gaming Awareness Society of Kenya, with Oluoch Ngicho [C], chief gaming inspector with the Kenyan Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), and a colleague (February 2019)

He is also partnering with a UK software company, Betban, to offer betting website blocking technology to universities; and approached one of Kenya’s largest nationwide network of counselling centres to introduce gambling addiction counselling.

But he is sceptical of the regulator’s motives for the crackdown: “If they were doing this in good faith, you might see some gambling addiction centres, some clinics, even just a little awareness created … they are just doing that for the tax.”

Bwire is echoing other commentators who see the directives as a thinly-disguised tax shakedown targeting the industry on behalf of the Kenyan revenue authorities and treasury who are under pressure to close a widening fiscal gap.

At a traditional wedding last weekend, President Uhuru Kenyatta referred to the crackdown explicitly. He said: “The firms should stop threats that they will move to court. The government must get its share [of tax] to fund activities that are beneficial to this country.”

This may not impress SportPesa’s owners, one of whom – as we report with the Guardian today – has been a major financier and fundraiser for Kenyatta’s Jubilee party.

“Those in the betting companies are our friends,” Kenyatta reportedly said, “But we have to agree that the government must get its rightful share to build cultural centres and other developments.”

But Bwire believes taxation is not going to dampen the public appetite for gambling, because “addicted gamblers will still gamble”.

He challenges the government to take a holistic approach, including addiction awareness and counselling.

“In this game of betting, they can’t only be a referee. People get injured in this game, and so there needs to be awareness about that, and doctors available too.”

Last year a new government body was set up, the Sports, Arts and Social Development Fund, to oversee the allocation of taxes specifically raised from betting.

Gambling taxes have reportedly already swelled the fund to around Shs15bn (more than £100m). By law, this money must be allocated to national sports teams, cultural facilities and the government’s universal healthcare pledges, as well as to unspecified “government strategic interventions”.

The fund took months to become operational due to political wrangling over who would control it.

In a country that many have argued is a kleptocracy, it remains to be seen whether any additional tax the government squeezes from the betting companies will fund gambling addiction awareness or rehabilitation – or instead disappears down the Nairobi drain.

Student gambling

In 2016, a few years after Kenya’s largely unregulated mobile phone-enabled sports betting craze took off, Bwire and his fellow students produced the first dedicated survey of betting among the youth.

They polled 373 students at Kenyatta University, roughly 0.5% of the university student population (78,000).

Although the sample size was relatively small, in the absence of comprehensive data about Kenya’s betting craze, it represents an important contribution to the public’s understanding of its prevalence.

Some key findings were:

* Nearly half of all respondents admitted to one or more signs of being at risk of problem gambling behaviour:
– 50% said they needed to gamble with increasing amounts of money;
– 30% said they were preoccupied with betting;
– 20% said they gambled the day after a loss in order to recoup it;
– 20% reported making repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop, or cut back, on gambling; and
– 3% said they had committed an illegal act to finance gambling.

* Most respondents said they started gambling aged 18-19.

* 68% of male respondents and 47% females said they gambled weekly, or more than once a week

* 7% of male respondents & 2% of females reported gambling daily

* Two-thirds of respondents spend up to KShs1,000 (£7.50) per month, one-quarter said they spend up to KShs5,000 (£40); and 5% of respondents said they spent more than KShs5,000 on gambling per month.

* 72% of all respondents saw gambling/betting as a way to make money; 40% said they saw it as a source of fun.

* 70% of respondents had gambled in the preceding year.

Read the report here.

These statistics broadly mirrored the headline findings of an often-quoted 2017 survey by GeoPoll on the leisure and spending habits of sub-Saharan African youth, which found that 76% of Kenyan respondents – the highest in the continent — had tried gambling.

Kenyans also spent the most money, about $50 (£40) monthly, mostly on football bets. The majority placed a bet once a week.

 

This is article was first published by Finance Uncovered.

* Edited by Ted Jeory and Nick Mathiason

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Lionel Faull began his career as a journalist at the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa before joining the country's pre-eminent non-profit investigations team, amaBhungane, in 2011. He has been working with Finance Uncovered since January 2017, joining as a full-time senior reporter a year later. His investigative interests include following the money flows behind mega-infrastructure procurement and natural resource exploitation, as well as exposing the professional enablers of grand corruption. Lionel has worked on several award-winning team investigations, including the GuptaLeaks in 2017, the Panama Papers in 2016, and lavish state spending on then-President Jacob Zuma’s private home in 2013. He has also worked for the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian in the UK.

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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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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