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State Capture: Why Kenya Has Been Unable to Slay the Corruption Dragon

10 min read.

In this three-part series, WACHIRA MAINA explains how “state capture elites” have undermined anti-corruption efforts and why, despite decades of reforms and numerous commissions of inquiry, corruption remains an enduring element of Kenyan politics and society.

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State Capture: Why Kenya Has Been Unable to Slay the Corruption Dragon
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Corruption has been a persistent problem in Kenya since before independence but it has flourished and put down robust roots since the country’s return to multiparty politics in 1992. With more democratisation, the government’s infirmity in fighting corruption has also grown proportionately.

The cost of corruption to Kenya is a much-debated figure, but some experts say it is up to 1 per cent of GDP per year. Corruption cases are routinely reported in the press, in the Auditor General’s reports and to the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) but these are rarely fully investigated let alone resolved satisfactorily.

Commissions of inquiry, such as the Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, the Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land, and the Gicheru Commission of Inquiry into Robert Ouko’s death, have achieved little. Even where a commission proposes extensive reforms – as the Inquiry into Illegal and Irregular Allocation of Public Land did – these are implemented in a patchy manner, seemingly “triaged” to exonerate the powerful or to punish their enemies.

Key sectors of the economy – food, land and oil, for example – are vulnerable to periodic heists and systematic mendacity and cover-ups. Reports of investigations done by committees of Parliament, such as the Musikari Kombo list of shame, are either totally rejected or doctored before they are laid before the House, ensuring that no action is ever taken.

Prosecutions fare no better: small fish are nabbed, big fish never. Even where, uncommonly, an indictment is followed by a conviction, the stolen money is rarely recovered. In the handful of cases where monies have been returned, it is usually from lowly officials. In some exceptional cases, the bigwigs will make secret “sweetheart deals” in which they return some token assets but get to keep the greater loot. All this motion without movement is possible because corruption is deeply embedded in politics, which it both funds and subverts.

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 clearly showed, politicians are the largest donors to so-called charitable causes (churches, schools, higher education and funerals are firm favourites) to which they give fortunes that are many times more than their known legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait-and-switch ploy – once institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to reach deeper into public coffers. The Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 revealed how intimately corruption is linked to politics. Laws were amended to stop civil servants from getting involved in fund-raising activities. By 2010, however, the law was being honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

Why reforms fail

Reforms come in unsustainable spurts, usually after an election, as in 2003, or in a moment of fiscal crisis, as in 2013 just before Kenya went to the market to issue its first Eurobond. In 2002, in the early phase of the Mwai Kibaki administration, there was frantic action that, for a moment, seemed to herald a fresh beginning in the fight against graft. The national mood was optimistic, exultant and supportive. One thousand procurement officers were suspended after an audit showed widespread irregularities.

Between 2003 and 2007 a raft of new laws were made, buttressing a new set of anti-corruption institutions. Commissions of inquiry and task forces were set up to investigate past scandals and propose additional reforms. These were expectant times: in a 2003 Gallup International survey of more than 67,500 people in 65 countries, Kenyans were ranked the most optimistic people in the world. This result was not a response to any of these reforms, merely the after-glow of the fall of the Daniel arap Moi autocracy. What it says, though, is that the government was riding on a huge wave of a popular “feel-good” moment and legitimacy.

As the report of the Task Force on Public Collections or Harambees 2003 clearly showed, politicians are the largest donors to so-called charitable causes…to which they give fortunes that are many times more than their known legitimate incomes. Such charity is, in truth, a bait-and-switch ploy – once institutions buckle to the lure of corruption money, the corrupt buy absolution and are free to reach deeper into public coffers.

It didn’t last. The laws were no sooner enacted than they were ignored. Task forces and commissions completed their tasks but nothing happened. Notwithstanding the baleful effect of the Goldenberg scandal on the national economy, the commission of inquiry into the scandal, led by Justice Bosire, was irresolute in its recommendations, most of which called for further investigations. The Bosire Commission had been tasked with investigating major financial fraud in the early 1990s involving a company called Goldenberg Ltd. and the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), in which the CBK and the local banking sector made losses of over $1 billion.

The report of the Kiruki Commission (2006) on the activities of the notorious Artur Brothers never even saw the light of day. The two brothers had been involved in a series of high-profile criminal activities and security breaches in collusion with highly placed Kenyan officials, which included a raid on the premises of the Standard Media Group.

As under the Moi regime, the much-loved commissions of inquiry have proved to be exceptionally weak instruments against graft. Few real changes have come out of the more than 30 commissions of inquiry Kenya has had in a century. And yet taxpayers invest millions in these commissions, expecting a real return by way of official integrity. As one AfriCOG report notes:

The Goldenberg Commission cost Kshs 503 million of which Kshs 200 million was spent on operations and Kshs 303 million on allowances. The Ndung’u Commission cost Kshs 78 million of which Kshs 7.4 million went to operations and Kshs 70.7 million was paid out as allowances. The Kiruki Commission cost Kshs 19.97 million of which Kshs 13.37 was paid out in allowances and Kshs 6.6 million went to operations.

Yet despite all these efforts, President Kibaki failed to actually reduce corruption. Instead, barely a year into the Kibaki presidency, in 2004, the still unresolved Anglo Leasing scandal broke out. By the mid-point of President Kibaki’s first term, most Kenyans had given up hope that corruption could be meaningfully tackled. To date, that has not changed.

The widespread nature of corruption means that Kenya routinely performs very poorly in international and local measures of corruption, integrity and good governance. Since the Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index was launched in 1995, Kenya has invariably been in the bottom half of the countries surveyed. Sometimes, the country records some improvement on particular indicators, such as the World Bank’s Government Effectiveness and Doing Business surveys, but generally it soon slips back to its bad ways, or just stagnates. Locally, corruption surveys by TI’s national chapter report widespread bribery. Some institutions, such as the police, land registries and county licencing services, have been reported to have been notoriously predatory.

Thus, a generation of reforms has not dented the corruption edifice or undone its rhizome-like penetration into the body politic in Kenya. Mostly, the government has embraced appearances of reform, rather than the fact of reform and this is so because deep reforms would loosen the ruling elite’s grip on power and severely subvert politics as it is played in Kenya.

State capture 

What is at play in Kenya is “state capture” – defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit. As defined by Catrina Godinho and Lauren Hermanus, state capture is “. . . a political-economic project whereby public and private actors collude in establishing clandestine networks that cluster around state institutions in order to accumulate unchecked power, subverting the constitutional state and social contract by operating outside of the realm of public accountability.” 

If capture is successful, “state institutions, governance, and functions are repurposed and re-engineered over time”, and the constitutional state sheds many of its substantive, but not formal, democratic features and becomes increasingly autocratic, at least in the ways in which power is exercised de facto”.

What is at play in Kenya is “state capture” – defined as a political project in which a well-organised elite network constructs a symbiotic relationship between the constitutional state and a parallel shadow state for its own benefit.

The success of state capture, therefore, rests on the ability of a small group of powerful and rich operatives to take over and pervert the institutions of democracy while keeping the façade of a functioning democracy. Thus, oversight institutions are weakened; law enforcement is partisan and in the pockets of politicians; civic space is asphyxiated; free elections are frustrated and are typically won by the most violent or the most corrupt, or those who are both violent and corrupt; arrests and indictments are often precursors of inaction, not proof of official will to fight corruption.

Essential to state capture is the existence of a crooked, conniving and reciprocal relationship between certain types of businesses and politicians. State capture creates a two-government country: there is an elected government, and there is a shadow government, a state within a state. Capture networks radiate, web-like, from two centres: the Presidency, where the power is concentrated, and the Treasury, where money management is centralised.

Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency, the source of power, and the Treasury, the source of money, is essential to fashioning the “criminal web” necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent-seeking elites.

This state capture perspective therefore requires us to see the state elite not as a government at all, but as a vertically integrated criminal organisation that operates in the shadow of the constitutional state. Taking that view, even political rivals are allies who co-exist uneasily, not principally, for the purpose of exercising the functions of the state in the abstract, but primarily and concretely for extracting resources for personal gain. Given its private objectives, the state, seen this way, has no interest in public purposes, such as development, education or health.

This perspective also questions the idea that the Kenyan state is recognisable as such, suggesting instead that institutions are run as noxious, corrupt, criminal fiefdoms. The government, from the presidency to the police, is privatised, with criminal elements operating under unofficial licence from civil authority. The appropriate way to think of the authorities is as organised criminals who have perverted state institutions to maximise predation.

Governance as a “front activity”

Why has state capture been so stable in Kenya, even seemingly able to transition through elections? Well, because the capture elites are not self-annihilating and an unstated rule of capture is that successor regimes will not disturb their predecessors. As John of Salisbury wrote in Policratius:

The raven rejoices in the work of the wolf, and the unjust judge applauds the minister of injustice…in lands whose princes are infidels and companions of thieves; they hasten to embrace those whose misdeeds they observe, thus adding their own share of iniquity in the hope that they may gain for themselves some portion of the spoil.

In this sort of state, governing is really “just a front activity” and to that extent the state is only failing at being a state but is otherwise remarkably effective in achieving its objective, which is to further enrich the state capture elite.

To be able to transition capture across elections, from one regime to another – as Kenya did in 2002 and again in 2013 and 2017 – involves repurposing politics so as to limit the political agency of citizens. To do this successfully, democracy has to be reframed in purely formal and procedural terms. The political class is then able to use the democratic process, especially elections, to frustrate what Michael Johnston calls “deep democratization”. Deep democratization, as opposed to procedural democracy, is:

[The] process whereby citizens become able to defend themselves and their interests by political means. It is “democratization”, not in the sense of establishing formal democratic institutions for their own sake, but rather in the sense of broadening the range of people and groups with some say about the ways power and wealth should—and should not—be pursued, used and exchanged. 

In this way, the procedural elements of democracy are used to hollow out its substantive commitments whilst keeping the diplomatic respectability that is conferred by regular elections.

In addition to sequestering democratic concepts for private use in this way, political elites also appropriate moral language and social norms to “conventionalise” corruption, fashioning a vocabulary that removes the moral sting and opprobrium from corruption and its various forms. Corruption is “traditionalised” and reframed as gift-giving or a form of socially recognisable reciprocity.

Why has state capture been so stable in Kenya, even seemingly able to transition through elections? Well, because the capture elites are not self-annihilating and an unstated rule of capture is that successor regimes will not disturb their predecessors.

Corrupt practices are then expressed in the language of moral obligation. No moral wrong is involved when an official or politician from one’s village violates conflict of interest rules or other laws to provide some benefit or to pull strings on behalf of kin and friends of friends. Once a moral bond is accepted as legitimate, a civil servant or politician cannot refuse to profit from “juicy” postings that might benefit him and his people or fail to “spread the benefit around” to his relatives. In this way, the state capture elite syncretically amalgamates traditional practices of gift-giving and reciprocity with their own corrupt and predatory practices that are based on smash and grab and a dollop of tokenism for friends and relatives.

This combination of a democracy drained of substance and communal mores, which are purloined to give social legitimacy to vice, erodes democracy’s emancipatory power and robs the public of the moral resources they need to confront bad governance. As George Steiner points out, political falsehood of this magnitude cuts language from its roots in “moral and emotional life” so that it becomes “ossified with clichés, unexamined definitions, and left-over words”. According to Steiner, this “anaesthetizing” drains “the life-force of the language” and dissolves the society’s moral and political values. Indeed, language is in a parlous condition when the bribe a judge takes to free a dangerous criminal is named chai, like a nice cuppa tea between intimates.

Seeing corruption as a problem of state capture solves many of the persistent puzzles of anti-corruption reform in Kenya. Why do the emblematic corruption cases, such as the Goldenberg, Anglo Leasing or Eurobond scandals, never get resolved even though they never really die? Because they are not meant to be resolved; to resolve them would undo the “implicit transition bargain” of Kenyan politics that successors will not harm the interests of their predecessors. And yet, these emblematic cases cannot really be allowed to die because that would expose the capture racket. Therefore, such cases are kept interminably in the public eye, partly as evidence that “action is live” and partly as a fig leaf to keep the machinery of larceny functioning under cover.

This combination of a democracy drained of substance and communal mores, which are purloined to give social legitimacy to vice, erodes democracy’s emancipatory power and robs the public of the moral resources they need to confront bad governance.

Goldenberg and other post-1992 state capture scandals marked a watershed in corruption politics, that is, “a shift from a politics of state-led control” to “a politics of competitive aggression, the principal victim of which has been the state itself”, says Dominic Burbidge. In this dispensation, politics “has become a pursuit of ever faster forms of enrichment”. These scandals challenge both the theory of democratic consolidation and the supposed “curative” effects of democracy on political corruption.

Kenya under democracy has transformed from a moderately corrupt society to a pervasively corrupt society, and corruption has moved stepwise from “petty or bureaucratic” to “grand or political” and, eventually, to state capture.

This is Part 1 of an abridged version of State Capture: Inside Kenya’s Inability to Fight Corruption, a report published by the Africa Centre for Open Governance (AfriCOG) in May 2019.

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Wachira Maina is a constitutional lawyer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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.

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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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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