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The March of Folly: Why the Referendum Will Bury the 2010 Constitution

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Proposals by politicians and church leaders to amend the 2010 Constitution serve narrow interests and could lead to further polarisation and exclusion in the country, argues CANON FRANCIS OMONDI.

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The March of Folly: Why the Referendum Will Bury the 2010 Constitution
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“To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail.” – Abraham Maslow.

The fervour for constitutional change among a section of the political class and national leadership has gained momentum. A cursory view of Kenya’s history indicates a propensity to revert to legal solutions for Kenya’s political problems or moral dilemmas. Our history demonstrates that tinkering with the constitution to accommodate the challenges facing the political class has rarely borne any fruit.

Seldom have we delved into successes political solutions afford us. The “handshake” of 9 March 2018 between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, they say, swerved Kenya away from the edge of the precipice of chaos. It took intriguing political turns and twists to cut the deal. Inclusivity! The courageous turns by President Kenyatta and Hon. Odinga, and the twisted, and cryptic yet surprising pact, somersaulted their lost and bewildered supporters into alignment in the new arrangement. So, Kenya is at peace today, after the grueling duel of the 2017 election, through a political solution.

But there are whispers among politicians that Kenyatta and Raila are threading the needle to solidify the handshake by anchoring it in the constitution and inevitably forcing a referendum on Kenyans. They should have stayed on this path and should never have capitulated. What a window of opportunity, not only to engrave an alternative approach to resolving our political complications, but also to transform and sanitise our politics.

The obtuseness with which this referendum is being mooted raises questions. In the early 1990s, we knew the reasons for holding a referendum. Though a referendum was not held then, public opinion and donor pressure forced President Daniel arap Moi to repeal Section 2A of the constitution (the section that made Kenya a one-party state). This precipitated the multiparty political dispensation that led to the proliferation of political parties and the eventual ouster of Moi’s Kanu party in 2002.

But there are whispers among politicians that Kenyatta and Raila are threading the needle to solidify the handshake by anchoring it in the constitution and inevitably forcing a referendum on Kenyans.

Similarly, the 2010 referendum on the new constitution was clear: Yes for change, No for the status quo. The push was to overhaul the old constitution to reflect our new realities. The changes sought included bringing voices on the margins to the centre and to institute a dramatic shift in how to share power and resources. Genuine inclusivity. For this, we found the formula in a devolved structure of government. The new constitution guaranteed a Bill of Rights that guaranteed freedom of expression, among other fundamental rights. Hence the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was promulgated.

NCCK’s proposals to amend the constitution

We live in an enchanted country under a spell of the referendum for a change in the law. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) made a proposal mainly seeking to change the executive, which appears to voice certain politicians’ whispers. The NCCK is seizing the moment to inject into the constitution some issues they could not include during the last referendum.

During the NCCK Executive Committee meeting on 27th February 2019, participants reached the conclusion to propose a wide range of changes to the 2010 Constitution. They suggested amending Article 130 of the 2010 Constitution by inserting the words “Prime Minister” and “two Deputy Prime Ministers” immediately after the words “Deputy President”.

They also recommended inserting a new clause (3) to read: “130 (3) The President, Deputy President, Prime Ministers, and Deputy Prime Ministers, shall all be from different ethnic groups.” They recommended giving both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Ministers executive authority.

During the NCCK Executive Committee meeting on 27th February 2019, participants reached the conclusion to propose a wide range of changes to the 2010 Constitution. They suggested amending Article 130 of the 2010 Constitution by inserting the words “Prime Minister” and “two Deputy Prime Ministers” immediately after the words “Deputy President”.

NCCK also recommended amending Article 131 (1) (b) by inserting the words “Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Ministers” immediately after the words “Deputy President”. They reasoned that introducing the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Ministers as members of the National Executive will enshrine greater inclusivity in the government’s structure. The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers, and Cabinet Secretaries are to be accountable to both the President and Parliament through the amendment of Article 153 by: a. Inserting in Clause (2) the words “Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Ministers” immediately before the words “Cabinet Secretaries” and b. Inserting in Clause (2) the words “and Parliament” immediately after the word “President”.

Reforming the executive structure is evidently the thrust of the NCCK’s recommendations. I have since found out that the NCCK conducted several seminars at the grassroots to garner support for the referendum. But in many places, the membership refused to drink this “Cool Aid”. They rejected these recommendations.

Ambassador Francis Muthaura, the former Head of Public Service, while making a submission during a Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) event on 10 July 2019, suggested bold changes to the 2010 Constitution. Amb. Muthaura rooted for a power-sharing government of the two protagonists, with Cabinet positions shared equally once in power, an arrangement reminiscent of President Mwai Kibaki’s and the then opposition leader Raila Odinga’s Grand Coalition Government of 2008. He proposed that both the winner and the runner-up candidates in the presidential election share in a coalition government as the President and the Prime Minister, respectively.

“Once the results of the presidential elections are announced by the electoral commission, the candidates having the highest number of votes and the second-highest number of votes will form a government of national coalition,” he said.

He further suggested that in Parliament, the president’s party should provide the leader of government business, while the prime minister’s party should provide the deputy leader of government business, which will make the government more consultative rather than the confrontational.

Enter Punguza Mzigo

The Third Way Alliance of Dr. Ekuro Aukot caught many by surprise when it got the Independent Electoral and Boundary Commission (IEBC)’s nod for a referendum. With over 1 million signatures, they had the people’s mandate for their reform bill, dubbed “Punguza Mzigo” Bill 2019.

At the core of the bill is relieving the public financial burden by trimming the government’s runaway expenditure. The proposed amendments aim to deal a fatal blow to corruption and theft of public funds, to redistribute national resources to the ward levels – which is a shift from the constituency level, as we know it today – and to rearrange presidential terms to only one, but for seven years. True to its name, the Punguza Mzigo bill plans on drastic austerity measures in both the government and in the legislature, which its proponents argue will spur economic growth, and percolate prosperity to ordinary Kenyans. David Ndii, a leading economist in Kenya, submits that it won’t boost economic growth as many argue.

It is disingenuous of Dr. Aukot, one of the Committee of Experts who birthed the 2010 Constitution, to now propose to overhaul it without a clear audit of what Kenyans gained or lost after its promulgation. For instance, reducing the number of legislators undermines the key gains of the 2010 Constitution on the principle of representation. The rationale for the present arrangement outweighs the populist reasons of cost-saving of taxpayers’ funds. This is sheer populism that won’t remedy the appalling state of the masses. Why change the law, when these changes are achievable through fiscal discipline and robust economic policies?

I am sceptical about whether changing laws to expand the government for inclusivity, either as advocated by the NCCK or Amb. Muthaura, reaches the depth of the issue. These proposals risk engraving tribal politics in our laws, which breed exclusion. What the NCCK suggests will distribute executive positions based on one’s tribe, while Muthaura’s winner and runner-up sharing positions may tie the positions to the same political groupings.

It is disingenuous of Dr. Aukot, one of the Committee of Experts who birthed the 2010 Constitution, to now propose to overhaul it without a clear audit of what Kenyans gained or lost after its promulgation.

Given how party politics in Kenya are tribally bent, these proposals may lead to an eternal exclusion of some communities. If we allow the changes as suggested, we would give birth to a bastard democratic order, with a government without the checks and balances that a credible opposition can offer. Doubtlessly, the changes will re-concentrate political power around a certain group in power and this will eventually bury the 2010 Constitution.

We may assume that the malaise is because of the defects in our institutions. Yet the problem lies elsewhere. A sound constitution would need a corresponding sound “structure”. For instance, the Constitution of the Soviet Union also granted a Bills of Rights, but that did not prevent the centralisation of power in one person or in one party. And as soon as that happened, the constitution was dead. The party or the chief became supreme. Even banana republics have sound constitutions protecting rights and promoting inclusivity, but most of them end up being mere words on paper.

If we allow the changes as suggested, we would give birth to a bastard democratic order, with a government without the checks and balances that a credible opposition can offer. Doubtlessly, the changes will re-concentrate political power around a certain group in power and this will eventually bury the 2010 Constitution.

Inclusivity cannot be achieved through a referendum 

Addressing the US Senate Judiciary Committee, the late Justice Antonin Scalia refuted that American “exceptionalism” was embedded in the US constitution, as many assumed. On the contrary, he argued, it was in the structure of its government, the independence of its judiciary and the bicameral legislature.

In this system, Scalia explained, “legislation passes one house [and] it doesn’t pass the other house; sometimes the other house is in the control of a different party; it passes both, and then this President, who has veto power, vetoes it. And they look at this and they say, ‘Ah, it is gridlock’.” This disagreement, he observed, is the key that provides the check and balances, and this is what makes American constitutionalism exceptional.

The “inclusivity” that supposedly came about as a result of the “handshake” between Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta or which is being proposed by the NCCK and Muthaura pays little attention to this kind of accountability. Rather, it blurs this vital element of democratic government. (To their credit, the drafters of the Punguza Mzigo Bill 2019 recognised the need to improve the checks-and-balances role of the legislature. They propose reforming the legislature to increase the power of the Senate as the Upper House and so improve the role of Parliament as a government watchdog and people’s representative.)

It is a cruel irony that we are now using a referendum to achieve inclusivity. A referendum, by its nature, is divisive. Every referendum we have held left us divided: In 2005, it was “Banana” or “Orange” groups. In 2010, it split us between the “Yes” and “No” camps. We have observed a referendum sorely dividing the United Kingdom, between “Brexiters” and “Remainers”.

A referendum implicitly denounces those who are on the opposite side as enemies, and this extremism can lead to violence. A referendum does not allow us to walk the sensible middle of the road, or achieve compromise needed over complex social challenges, because it simplifies complex issues into sound bites. Referendums hinder a thorough and factual debate over issues. Our leaders claim to want referendums for the purpose of gauging public opinion, while in reality, what they really want is to make the public to parrot their untested ideas.

It is a cruel irony that we are now using a referendum to achieve inclusivity. A referendum, by its nature, is divisive.

Referendums generally tend to inhibit us from carrying out an independent evaluation of issues. They are likely to deny us opportunities to listen to experts who would give a general assessment of national interest and enable us to balance multiple perspectives. Further, a referendum will obstruct compromise, especially because it will produce a result in which a majority, by any margin of votes, feels entitled to speak for the whole nation and to stifle the voice of the minority. 

Fixing our politics

So, investing more in politics than the law remains our most viable option. During the BBC’s 2019 Reith Lectures, In Praise of Politics, (the retired Justice of the UK’s Supreme Court, Lord Jonathan Sumption, criticised the law’s expanding of the empire into our lives. He observed the law’s corroding influence on democracy, and argued that politics, not the law, holds the solutions for the crises in society. He warned, “Every human problem or moral dilemma can’t call for legal solutions.”

Justice Sumption makes the case for strengthening the political process through representation, which is the role of Parliament, for it is difficult for all citizens to vote over and decide over a matter. The masses often have insufficient data and information to reach an informed decision.

Besides, as Sir David Hume, a prominent figure of the 18th century’s Scottish Enlightenment observed, there is an incurable narrowness of soul that makes people prefer the immediate to the remote and to safeguard parochial rather than national interests. Sumption, therefore, supports taking this process away from the electors who have no reason to consider but a desire for the immediate and narrow opinion of their own. He insists that political decision-making should stay in the hands of politicians because they can accommodate the widest array of opinions and act in the national interest.

It’s a tragedy that our lawmakers are strangers to this principle of representation. At best, they only listen to the concerns of the constituents but do not promote among their constituents a broader view of public interest.

James Madison, in The Federalist Papers, made the strongest justification for representative politics, which he argued, is to “refine and enlarge the public views, bypassing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

Regrettably, our legislature operates as a creation of the executive, and/or their political party heads. Nothing goes without them saying so. Sir Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish politician, political theorist, and philosopher who served as a member of parliament reminds us, “Parliament was not a congress of ambassadors but its members were there to represent the national interest than the opinions of the constituents.”

We will remain torn apart by the submitted adjustments unless these motions undergo a process of refinement and enlargement through the broad workings of the legislative process. Here, such ideas are transformed from private persuasions at public hearings or at a local level, to the deliberative proceedings in Parliament. And from the contests and accommodation of interests in legislative committees to the representatives’ open declarations to their constituents.

The representation principle was intended to prevent such narrow interests and unjust views from determining public decisions. Thus the job of the representative is not to follow daily polls or sudden breezes in popular opinion, which Madison thought were too often the result of prejudice and partial interests. Rather, the representative should promote a consensus grounded in justice and the common good.

The Kenyan ordinary political process is murky and treacherous, devoid of true representatives. Can we fix this? We must demand deliberation within the legislature of the proposals by NCCK, Muthaura, Punguza Mzigo Bill 2019 and any others that will be put forward, and seek a two-way process of communication between the representatives and their constituents. Within this milieu of public communication and deliberation, perhaps a kind of civic education will take place. Maybe this then will contribute to forming and settling public opinion based on what is right, and therefore, will justify “the respect due from the government to the sentiments of the people.”

I opine that this madness to tinker with the code may become our “march of folly”. Mrs. Barbara W. Tuchman, in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, gives a stark warning on decisions leaders make without referring to the facts and which end up harming ordinary people. In some of her conclusions, she asserts that folly is sometimes caused by people’s ‘’wooden-headedness’’ or ignoring their earlier history. Just folly.

This is not a situation where leaders make an error in judgment due to ignorance; it is a situation where decisions are made out of foolishness. Mrs. Tuchman sets out three conditions for such decision-making. First, the leaders and those responsible were warned about the potential for a disaster. Second, there were workable alternatives to the course they took. Third, it was groups, not individuals, who perpetrated the foolishness.

Mrs. Tuchman supported her assertions with four major acts of folly in human history. These are: 1) the Trojans’ decision to move the Greek horse within the walls of their city; 2) the refusal of six Renaissance popes to arrest the growing corruption in their church and their failure to recognise the increasing restiveness that would lead to the Protestant secession; 3) the British misrule under King George III that eventually cost England her American colonies; and 4) America’s mishandling of the conflict in Vietnam.

We must halt urgently this referendum march. For there is nothing new about our present crisis and the suggested constitutional reforms are usually irrelevant to the problem that provoked them. The peril Kenya faces lies not in our laws or institutions, but in the decline of our character as a community. Without a powerful sense of community, even the best laws and institutions will remain a dead letter.  The facade will stand, but there will be nothing behind it. The rhetoric will be loud, but it will be meaningless.

And the fault will be ours.

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Canon Francis Omondi, is a priest of All Saints Cathedral Diocese Nairobi, and an adjunct lecturer at St. Paul’s University Limuru. Views expressed here are his own.

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/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.

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Politics

IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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Politics

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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