The peril of our national education system is that it shapes students to believe in the regime’s preferred version of the country’s history to the exclusion of other alternative narratives. Students learn to order their lives within the faulty and often false frames of reality provided by the ruling regime with the intent of entrenching loyalty, deference, and sometimes subservience to the state.
A typical Kenyan schooled in the officially sanctioned social studies texts will refer to Kenya as a nation-state when in reality it is a plantation established circa 1885. This Kenyan will speak of independence gained in 1963 while remaining oblivious to the negotiated transfer of the colonial plantation from the white aristocracy—with the colonial logic remaining intact—into the hands of the black aristocracy.
The same citizen is then left wondering why this country does not behave as a country ought to, as it is ill-equipped to decipher the colonial pulse of this plantation whose logic and DNA are still extractive, corrupt, violent and tribal.
A typical Kenyan schooled in the officially sanctioned social studies texts will refer to Kenya as a nation-state when in reality it is a plantation established circa 1885.
From 387 BC when Plato set up the academy—deriving the name from Academus the Attic, a hero in Greek mythology—academia has come to represent the true crucible for sharpening the minds of men throughout civilisations. Academus was famed for his redemptive power, first on Helen, the underage bride of King Theseus, and then on the minds of men for hundreds of years thereafter.
But long before the Platonic academy was built, medieval centres of learning existed in pre-modern societies, sprawling from the sandy Sahelian castles of the University of Timbuktu, to Taxila in ancient India, Shang Xiang in China, the ancient University of Alexandria, which flourished 2,300 years ago, and the school of Sabeans in medieval Persia.
From these bootstrap conceptions of centres of knowledge arose the great academies of the world that were primarily anchored in the progressive growth of disciplines and the respective complex institutions that were exclusively dedicated to their study and to knowledge production.
It is from this strain that the Renaissance academies of 15th century Italy arose, built around neoplatonist education. Then came the 16th century literary-aesthetic academies, mainly patronised by the children of the elite, including such famous academies as Notti Vaticane, Intrepidi and Vignaiuoli.
Out of this progression of disciplines and academies arose the academies of the arts, academies of sciences, literary-philosophical academies, academies of history, linguistic academies and, eventually, academic societies.
Logic, theology, sociology of our education
Interestingly, this rise of knowledge also coincided with the expansion of capital into the global South through the conquistadors and the colonial enterprise.
By the late 1800s, when barely 60 per cent of the world’s states had been formed, capital (corporatocracy) began to supplant nation-states (democracy) as the most dominant form of organisation in society. This mainly began in 1896 when the industrial titans in the West realised that they would have to preserve their capitalistic interests by funding political stooges. That marked the shift of the centre of societal life from the home to the state, and finally to industry and the office.
This shift uniquely entrenched the problem all too familiar with our education system, which is that we now educate for the market instead of educating for society. The problem implicit in educating for the market is that it prioritises skills over non-monetisable knowledge in ways that fundamentally alter the value of education in the eyes of society and inadvertently exposes it to the ravages of market dynamics. Many of you out there are in careers that did not exist when you started school and most of your children will be in careers that have not been invented yet. Some students will find that the industry they are now training for will have been wiped out by the time they graduate. That is just one of the many follies of training for the market.
This shift uniquely entrenched the problem all too familiar with our education system, which is that we now educate for the market instead of educating for society.
The blowback from educating for the market rather than educating for the society is that the market requires signals, such as a degree or diploma certificate. These signals are domiciled in particular institutions—mainly those mandated by the state to provide education. Therefore, the average citizen learns to centralise classroom education, while alternative knowledge systems are ignored and fizzle out, atrophied by disuse and neglect.
On the other hand, educating for humanity means complementing classrooms with museums and local knowledge and libraries and creating reverence for knowledge for its own sake. It means fusing knowledge with skills, not denigrating knowledge especially when it does not fit into any immediate solutioneering need.
The case for canons
In the absence of rigour and vibrancy in the nationalistic classroom-based education, Kenyan educators have to take upon themselves the difficult duty of developing canons as pointers to the critical extra-classroom texts for the society. A canon simply refers to a body of books, tracts, narratives and other texts judged to be the most critical, insightful, and influential of a particular time period, context or place.
Take the scriptures for example, the most famous of the canons, consisting of 66 books written in three different languages—Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic—by 40 authors from more than 23 different professions over a span of 1600 years, and with a 400-year gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament.
These books were written in five regions—Judea, Babylon, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy—with books on law, systematic thinking, history, culture, philosophy, and theology transcribed mainly from four major families of manuscripts.
These manuscripts were recovered from across three continents: the Alexandrian manuscripts were recovered in Egypt, the Byzantine manuscripts in modern-day Turkey, and the Western and Caesarean manuscripts in Libya. Out of these, the church established its core texts.
The canonisation of authors and books into popular usage is based not only on their quality, but also on their relevance to society’s moral, historical, social, and artistic context. The subjective desires of the canonisers, including their moral inclination, gender, geographical location, biases and motives, influence the list incredibly. That is why the question of what goes into a canon and what does not is always a never-ending topic of scrutiny and debate for scholars and readers across all academic disciplines.
Moreover, the creation of canons lends them subject to change and alteration to reflect the changing societal dynamics, as is the case with the increasing diversification of canons away from domination by Western white patriarchs like Homer and Shakespeare.
According to the scholar Paul Lauter, who historicised the American canon, the first American literature classes started in the mid-to-late 1890s, and the term “literary canon” came into use in 1929 at the same time as the first American literature textbooks were rolled out.
In recent decades, canons have diversified to include African canons, African-American canons, Asian canons, Latin American canons and feminist canons, which are complemented by discipline-specific ones such as canons of philosophy, linguistics, economics and a litany of other emerging disciplines.
Reimagining the nation
Curiously, canons are as much a political project as they are intellectual projects, laden with illuminating beliefs as to whose voices make it into the marketplace of ideas and get memorialised into pop culture.
It is in the very nature of certain books and writings to be deemed critical and reflective as well as beneficial to a nation’s soul based on their versatility, prestige, utility, power, and incisiveness and writing quality. Canons, therefore, within their historical-literary sense, equip the citizens with the ability to philosophise their nation-states.
A nation grounded in the culture of constantly evolving canonical creeds is able to articulate its existence, humanise its people and arm them with the tools necessary to see through the skilled lies of the neoliberal project with its insidious desire to quantify every aspect of human existence.
While referring to the state of Nigerian consciousness, the late Nigerian scholar, Prof. Pius Adensami opined:
Few Nigerians [or Kenyans] understand that our chaos, our urban rot and rural decay, our decrepit roads, hospitals, and Universities, our power failures and water shortages, and our fuel scarcity are collective consequences of our wanton embrace of the unthought and unreflected society.
Since we inherited this dilapidated contraption from the British, we have made not a single attempt to philosophise the Nigerian project through sustained critical thought. The price is always very heavy when a people develop a collective hostility to philosophy.
Dubai, London, Paris, and all the other destinations that Nigerians adore and desire are all outward manifestations of something called modernity. Democracy, law and order, urban planning and regulation are all features of modernity. Innovation and science and technology are equally features of modernity.
Adensami made an accurate indictment of the general public’s unwillingness to appreciate the philosophy that undergirds disciplines and the resultant mess often prevalent in societies that lack canonical creeds.
According to scriptural history, long before the church convened the Council of Nicaea in 325AD to decide on the 66 books that make the Bible, Moses, the Hebrew patriarch, went to Mt. Sinai to pick up two tablets that were, hopefully, the redemptive canons that would mitigate the chaotic evil brought about by the apple debacle in the Garden of Eden. As is typical of canons, the ten creeds contained in the two Sinaitic canons would expand to 632 laws contained in the Hebrew Torah and the Talmud before being boiled down to two by the Aramaic philosopher Jesus Christ. Interestingly, in the two precepts with which he summarised the entire Hebrew canon, Christ simply calls for one to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul and mind and to love their neighbour as themselves. He was in essence asserting that in the sacred-social axis of a society’s existence, the social order of human civilisation has to be undergirded by the sacred order in one’s relation to their deity.
A nation grounded in the culture of constantly evolving canonical creeds is able to articulate its existence, humanise its people and arm them with the tools necessary to see through the skilled lies of the neoliberal project with its insidious desire to quantify every aspect of human existence.
Jesus simply demonstrated that the canon process therefore goes beyond the politics of memorialisation, the intellectualisation of social reality, and the philosophisation of its existence; it is a spiritual duty of helping a nation decide what defines its popular beliefs on critical human decisions, such as the meaning of life, existence, history, sexuality, community, and identity.
Back to the feisty Adensami:
Nigerians [or Kenyans] see the end product but they have absolute contempt for the road which led the advanced world to the glittering modernity that they desire. They do not know that modernity and its gloss exist today because a long line of thinkers in Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe produced philosophies which became the bedrock of what we see and call modernity today.
They do not know that the cars they drive are products of philosophy before being products of science and technology. Because Nigerians are ignorant of these things, they frown on philosophy, intellectual labour, and critical thought. The slightest encounter with philosophy and critical thought in our lives is quickly dismissed as “dogon turenchi”.
Everywhere you look, our national life is a sordid and tragic display of the absence of philosophy in our conceptualisation of Nigerian society. When you declare war on philosophy, knowledge, and critical intellection, the consequence, simply put, is Nigeria as you and I know her today. Nigeria can therefore be defined as the absence of and hostility to philosophy [and canons].
Across the Atlantic Ocean it is said of the United States that it borrowed its philosophical categories from the Greek canons, its political categories from Ancient Roman canons, its theological categories from the law and the prophets of the Hebrew canon, and its social categories from British Victorian values. It is appropriately parenthetical to add that it borrowed its secularising power from the thoroughly desacralised French canons through the 1970s identity politics and Foucault-ian poststructuralist philosophies which, I might add, constitute a large part of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of American life today.
It is this tapping into the canonical existence of medieval societies through which we get the genius of the impressive Euro-American edifice. The United States, therefore, comes into existence as the apex of the 2000-year-old Greco-Roman-Hebrew canons which that were distilled into the American declaration of independence, stating that:
We hold these truths to be self-evident [logic], that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights [theology] that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness [philosophy]. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed [politics] . . .
Theory in everything
It takes the theorising and philosophising of one’s existence for an individual and his resident community to reimagine their society and to reimagine their existence. Let’s face it, food and shelter, water, schooling, and healthcare are all theory and the theory-practical divide is a false dichotomy. There is an entire theory as to why Nairobi has more schools than, say, Wajir or Kakamega; there is a whole theory behind the vibrant rural modernity in Meru; it is the theory that determines whether there is water in your neighbourhood or not. The theory could be racism, humanism, urban anthropology, historical accidents, ethnic profiling, social notions of wealth and development, political marginalisation—it is all theory.
There is a theory behind our obsession with concrete and soil. Yes, metal pipes bringing water to your house carry silent theories within them. The theory could be in the quality of materials used, the government idea of sustainable infrastructure, the social class of the neighbourhood or the work ethic of the engineers and the enforcement of quality controls in the system.
It takes the theorising and philosophising of one’s existence for an individual and his resident community to reimagine their society and to reimagine their existence.
Behind the silent width of the cemented Mbagathi Road or the glaring omission of footpaths on Jogoo Road or even poor markings on Waiyaki Way lie theories. Sometimes the theory is simply entrenched classism and the voicelessness of the poor. Every time you claim that that’s just theory, we want practice, that too is a theory; it is a theory that posits that theory is not important.
Darwinism, democracy, racism, pan-Africanism and all other -isms and -acies silently populate all the “practical” designs and outcomes out there. It’s no use mocking theories without giving people alternative metaphysical constructs and ideas. And when we deny ideology and paint theory as unnecessary, abstract, esoteric, pie-in-the-sky, we display a nation sorely in need of a canon.
Tragically, we don’t like theory so we think TVET and the Competency-based Curriculum will make our kids learn “practical skills”, forgetting that that too counts as theory.
These kids might never invent anything new because invention, innovation and improvement of existing systems and infrastructure requires an understanding of their theories of origin and development, but theory is not important, right? At best, they will adopt solutions from abroad without interrogating the anthropological, historical, demographic and social contexts within which those systems and infrastructure, policy or setups were invented and how those contexts influenced the designs and workability of those systems; yet it’s all in the theories domiciled in some form of a canon.
Everyone for themselves
There are those that think that canons are the elitist conceptions of egomaniac Kenyan scholars and thinkers laden with a well-concealed contempt for the hoi polloi’s capacity to pursue knowledge on their own. The central thesis of their argument rests upon the unnecessarily idealistic and manifestly illusory belief that everyone can and should pursue intellectual labour unencumbered by the patronising canon-building efforts of intellectual elites.
According to this school of thought, the process of building canons is filtered through gatekeeping and a god-like status that scholars purportedly grant themselves to decide what the society should read.
The truth is that, in the face of a nationalistic education that is often the vehicle for the regime’s official narrative, and the inability of many to decipher fact from fake news, the presence of a wide range of alternative canons will improve the scope of books and texts that one needs to help them figure out the society.
The humanities, therefore, owe the Kenyan masses a canon. So do the arts, the social sciences, the hard sciences, linguistics and pretty much every professional field and discipline. If this is not done, we might as well watch Project Kenya collapse and with it the hopes, dreams and aspirations of its people.
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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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