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The Chinese Babies of Mathare and Other Love Stories

11 min read.

Large China-funded infrastructure projects in Kenya have led to an influx of Chinese male migrants, who have not just changed the landscape of the country, but who have also found love – and had children – in the most unlikely places. DAUTI KAHURA reports on the “Chikuyu” phenomenon.

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The Chinese Babies of Mathare and Other Love Stories
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In the sprawling congested tenements of Kiamaiko, just behind Jonsaga area in Huruma, Nyawira (not her real name) used to be the gossip of her flatmates for the longest time. She was married to a Chinese man who had come to the country as a road construction worker in the mid-2000.

“I used to sell edibles to the Chinese workers, who had begun constructing Thika Road and that’s how we met,” said Nyawira somewhat nostalgically, remembering those days that she daily interacted with the Chinese. “It was my first time to meet with the Chinese people – they spoke neither English nor Kiswahili and I didn’t speak their language Mandarin. But they needed to eat and I needed to sell food. It is the story of how human beings can overcome imagined obstacles in order to relate.”

By the time the Thika superhighway was nearing completion, Nyawira and her Chinese friend were an item. They had even moved together in Kiamaiko and today their 12-year-old son is a testament to that liaison.

But the romance did not last long. “A couple of years back, he told me he had to head back home for some urgent matter I have not seen him since,” explained Nyawira.

In Nyawira’s neighbourhood, there are two Chinese men who share a one-bedroomed house. “The two men are my water clients,” said Zangi, one of the water vendors that supply water in 20-litre jerricans to Kiamaiko’s residents. “These Chinese have adapted to the local situation, they are just like our people.”

At Eastlands Hotel on Ring Road Kilimani, a wholly Chinese-owned deluxe hotel for Chinese tourists who cannot afford to stay at the city’s high-end hotels, I met Wamaitha (not her real name), an ordinarily very talkative and outgoing person, but only when her Chinese husband is not around. A consummate businesswoman, she met her Chinese mate at a business convention. She is in her early 30s, and her tummy is already showing a noticeable bump – a telltale sign that soon she will be expecting a baby. “My husband is also a businessman, dealing in precious stones,” said Wamaitha, who is from Kerugoya in Kirinyaga County.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video (the couple says they don’t know who did it) that went viral. Ngunjiri said her wedding to a Chinese man really excited Kenyans for reasons she cannot quite fathom.

Nyawira’s and Wamaitha’s inter-racial relationship stories with the Chinese is the story of diversity of the Chinese people who come to Kenya: from the construction worker to the polished entrepreneur, the Chinese migrants in the country have been causing socio-cultural ripples with their unparalleled quick adaptability to the local environment. “In the next 50 years in Kenya, the Chinese people are going to integrate into the Kenyan society in ways that can only be unimaginable today,” said Christom Karimi, a Kenya-Chinese cultural expert, who speaks perfect Mandarin.

To date, the most famous of these Chinese marriages has been that of Liang Yongyu and his 29-year-old wife, Karen Ngunjiri, who married recently. It became a public matter when an unknown fellow who must have attended the wedding uploaded their exclusive marriage ceremony video that went viral.

Inter-racial families in Kenya have never been a big deal; they are prevalent, especially among white men and indigenous Kenyan women. The white folk in Kenya has been around for long, and their liberal Western culture, English language, Christian religion and general demeanour have made it easier for Kenyan girls to easily gel with them. Not so with the Chinese, whose Oriental culture, language and even religion and their “peculiar” culinary habits have been alien to Kenyans. Chinese people eat dogs, cats and even frogs. These cuisine recipes would test the taste buds of even the strongest Kenyans, who are otherwise known to enjoy international menus.

Early this year, at Diamond estate in South B, Nairobi, a German shepherd went missing. A notice was plastered on the main gate to the estate. After a couple of days, when the garbage collectors came to pick the trash, they found the dog’s head in one of the dustbins. A security meeting was called and the people confronted one of the Chinese estate residents. He owned up to rounding up the canine and agreed to pay a fine of Sh35,000.

Usually, when a local girl gets married to a white man in Kenya, she is whisked off to a posh suburban area: these girls believe they have crossed the Rubicon; it is a mark of upward mobility and privileged social status. Not so with the inter-racial Chinese marriages between Chinese men and Kenyan women; like Nyawira, many end up living in shanty towns.

Where it all began

In 2009, three Chinese companies were contracted by the Kenyan government to build the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. These companies imported Chinese migrant labour who did the actual road construction. The Chinese workers lived in makeshift tin shacks with makeshift mobile toilets in a compound that was sealed from the rest of the Kenyans. The biggest construction site was at the huge Globe Cinema roundabout, where the construction of the 50 km superhighway began. The roundabout is just 500 metres from Nairobi’s central business district (CBD).

The Chinese workers were under strict instructions from the companies’ general managers not to meander into the CBD. So the only meaningful interactions the Chinese workers had with Kenyans was during tea and lunch breaks. At tea break, they would be served African tea and mandazi (a doughnut-like delicacy). For lunch, they were served local cuisine. The food usually included, ugali, githeri, chapati and broth made of turtle beans and green grams. Many of the girls and women who sold food at the site were from Mathare Valley, a large informal settlement that borders the Thika superhighway – the language barrier notwithstanding.

Five years later, in 2012, when the $360-million road was opened by President Mwai Kibaki, the Chinese migrant labour had not only completed the road and overpass bridges, they had also invested in creating inroads and building bridges among the local female populace. Referred to as chinku – the ghetto slang name for the Chinese, the Chinese quickly learned the local lingua franca Sheng, the colloquial language spoken in shanty towns across Nairobi.

Today, the Chinese have not only married local girls and become assimilated into Kenyan life, they have also ventured into informal businesses, a preserve of Nairobi’s rank and file that lives in Eastlands, the poorer part of the city. The resilience of the Chinese came to light when they started trading at Gikomba Market, the largest second-hand clothes market in East and Central Africa. Gikomba Market, a stone’s throw away from Mathare Valley, is a bedlam of activities: you would have to be made of tough metal to conduct business there.

Not all the local women were as lucky as Nyawira and Wamaitha to be in steady relationships, Nyawira’s hubby later disappearance notwithstanding. There are many the tale of Chinese men who have sowed seeds wherever they worked and moved on, either back to China, or relocated to other working sites.

In Mathare 4B, Njeri was not as lucky: she was abandoned by her Chinese mate even after having two children with him. She was also serving food to the Chinese on Thika superhighway. Her two boys are now big – one is about 8 years old, while the other is 10.

Mathare Valley is a hellish place. Reminiscent of the favelas of Port Alegre and Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, life in the slum is short, nasty and brutish. Among the children hopping over the open flowing sewers and mounds of garbage strewn all over are Njeri’s children, who have continually drawn attention from fellow children, not so much because of their fairer skin complexion, but more fundamentally, because of the shape of their eyes.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese. When she was asked to explain the anomaly, she owned up to having an affair with a Chinese construction worker. The Gitaru–Wangige Road is currently under construction by the Chinese. Local folklore has it that when she was asked to identify the man, even after they were paraded for identification, she could not pick him. The joke going around is that all Chinese men look alike.

Such mixed-race children – often referred to as “Chikuyus” – can also be seen in other parts of the country. Last month, in Gitaru, Muthure village, a married woman gave birth to a baby that created a buzz among the villagers: the baby looked Chinese.

This is the same joke-story that Purity told me in Mwihoko, Githurai. Purity was a food seller at the Githurai roundabout during the road construction. Over time she befriended a Chinese man. When he impregnated her, he disappeared. “Ï went looking for him, among his colleagues, I couldn’t find him. That was 10 years ago, because that is how old her daughter is,” she said.

The Chinese invasion

The Chinese have not only been marrying local girls, impregnating the ones they could, and engaging in retail business, they have also, surprisingly, been attending church – mostly evangelical churches – and have even started local branches of international churches. To most Kenyans, the Chinese people are not known to worship the Christian God, much less worship God at all. This view traces its origin to the Chinese history as a majority of Kenyans understand it: that China has always been a communist country that has no place for God or religious activities.

Emboldened by the warm reception of a Christianised population, where 80 per cent of the country, nominally or otherwise, belongs to the various Christian denominations, the Chinese migrants are starting evangelical type churches even in rural Kenya. At Gambogi, a trading centre on the Kakamega-Kisumu Road, the Chinese construction workers who are building the 60km road between the two towns have colonised the Gambogi PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) Church, situated just beside the road. Gambogi PAG Church, which has meetings in rented premises, has now added the name China to its church label to read China Gambogi PAG Church.

Today, there are three main Chinese churches in Nairobi, all run by pastors from abroad. The pastors, mainly from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia, are plying their trade in posh suburban areas in Nairobi. The Bread of Life Church, which is the better known of the Chinese churches, meets in a tall office block and caters mostly to employees of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), CGTN, the Chinese government broadcasting media house, and the business community.

Even though many of the migrant Chinese in Kenya are of evangelical persuasion, not all of them attend such churches. It is 4.00 pm at the Jehova Witness Kingdom Hall on Elgeyo Marakwet Road where the faithful meet every Sunday. A special service is going in Mandarin. Here, a group of Chinese Jehova Witness followers meet to fulfil their religious obligations. The meeting, incidentally, is not exclusively for the Chinese; there are Kenyans there, who by the virtue of attending these meetings, have learnt Mandarin.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani. Many of their social-economic activities are centred around this area. At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs. At Park 53 building on Ring Road, 90 per cent of the businesses, mostly restaurants, are owned by the Chinese. Because many of them do not speak the local lingua franca, English and Kiswahili, they tend to huddle together, hence live communally in the same area.

Amid all these Chinese activities in the country, their seemingly unchecked influx has apparently been causing disquiet among Kenyans, especially among small traders and the business community, who engage in the importation of merchandise. Kenyans tend not to be xenophobic, but the Chinese community is quietly and slowly eliciting xenophobic rhetoric among Kenyans.

The majority of these Chinese people live and operate around the radius between Ngong Road, Argwing Kodhek Road and Ring Road, Kilimani…At the Chinese Centre on Ngong Road, for example, they can shop at their supermarkets, which cater solely to their needs.

Several weeks ago, the MP for Starehe constituency, Charles Njagua, stoked xenophobic fears when he accused foreigners, who obviously included the Chinese, of monopolising all the businesses that “belong” to Kenyans. In his inciteful remarks, the MP said if the government did not take any “stern measures” against the foreigners, he would lead the people in ferreting out the foreigners out of the country. The MP has since recanted his statement, arguing that he was quoted out of context. But the point had already been made.

Traders on Gaberone Lane, the 100m backstreet alleyway behind Gaberone Road in downtown Nairobi supported and loudly voiced the xenophobic rhetoric against the Chinese. It is not difficult to see why. They all deal mainly in fabric and textiles materials, all imported from China. “Since the Chinese entered into this business, our businesses have gone down, they have been doing everything to undercut us by their price differentiation” said Ken Mutahi, who has been importing fabrics from China for the last 15 years.

“The Chinese have the unparalleled advantage of buying the materials directly from the factories, in their own country, while we buy from retailers. It has become increasingly impossible to compete with them, because all they need to do is lower their prices a little bit and they will still be within their profit margin,” complained Mutahi. He said that the traders were furious with the government for allowing the Chinese to “invade” their businesses. “Which government allows foreigners to overrun businesses meant for the locals?”

At Gikomba Market, anger has been building up against the Chinese traders, who have taken the second-hand clothes business by storm. “Chinese are now some of the biggest middle men, involved in selling thousands of bales of clothes,” said Elvis Kariuki, himself a trader at the market since the early 1990s. “We have been asking ourselves what kind of work permit these Chinese are on that allows them to engage in such businesses,” said Kariuki. Seemingly better organised and with a lot more capital than the local traders, the Chinese have been buying huge stocks of second-hand clothes mainly imported from the United Kingdom and filling all the warehouses in Gikomba.

“Expatriates who come to the country should be bringing in [new] knowledge and skills that maybe scarce or non-existent – why does the government allow the Chinese to come and take our jobs?” posed Kariuki. The trader said many of the Gikomba Market traders who have never known or done any other work, other than selling second-hand clothes, are very bitter with both the government and the Chinese traders.

The Chinese have not only infiltrated the second-hand clothes market, they are also involved in importing – from their own country – merchandise that was the sole preserve of the small traders. In downtown Nairobi, Chinese traders are running shops and renting stores which they stock with stuff imported from China. These items include cheap feature mobile phone handsets, their spare parts and hi-fi equipment such as hoofers.

“Some of the Chinese traders doing business in Kenya have been contracted by local companies back at home,” said a Kenyan trader who has been in the business of importing the same stuff. “The Chinese traders then become the conduits for creating new markets for the products manufactured back in China.”

The Chinese traders, on the other hand, have a different view of themselves. Some of the Chinese traders I spoke to said that they were not taking away anybody’s job or business – all they were doing was engaging in market competition. “We just happen to be aggressive and versatile,” some of one Chinese trader.

Forty-year-old Alex Cao (pronounced Chao), originally from Tianjin, came to Kenya seven years ago. He said he found his niche in real estate development. “It is never a smooth sail,” said Cao. “Dexterity is the name of the game if you have to survive the market onslaught.”

Richard Ling, 30, hails from Guangzhou and has been in Kenya for only three years. A trader, he hawks merchandise, including mobile phone gadgets, chargers, power banks, and torches, from his small rented stall at Kamukunji market building in downtown Nairobi.

Sixty-year-old Ling Fang came to Kenya 20 years ago. His wife joined him 10 year later. They found success in selling and stocking drapery and other upholstery materials, which they import in bulk from their country. From their shop on Biashara Street, they have engaged in both retail and wholesale business.

The dexterity of the Chinese in Kenya has seen them diversify in all manner of businesses. At the Eastmart supermarket on Tom Mboya Street, one of the upcoming suppliers of confectioneries is a Chinese man who makes doughnuts, shortcakes and cupcakes. “Every morning by 8.00 am, the Chinese man will deliver his goods without fail,” said the supermarket attendant who is in charge of the bread and cakes section. “His prices are between Sh10 and Sh20 cheaper and his cakes are slightly bigger, so they move faster.”

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

“The Chinese who are always looking for favourable places to do business have recently been migrating to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian economy is growing at a steady pace, the government has reduced much of the red tape associated with starting businesses for foreigners and their tax regime is not as punishing,” Karimi said.

At their peak in 2015, there were about 40,000 Chinese in Kenya, but Karimi told me that over the couple of past years, the number could have gone down to between 30,000 and 35,000. According to Howard French, a journalist who has written the book, China’s Second Continent, there are upward of one million Chinese people in Africa.

By 2017, China had become Kenya largest trading partner. In 2017, it built a new railway line, at the cost of $3.18 billion, the most expensive infrastructure expenditure in Kenya since independence.

Two years ago, perhaps in an effort to endear themselves to Kenyans, a Chinese philanthropic group started a feeding programme in eight informal primary schools in Mathare 4A. The biggest of these schools, Chang Rong – which translates as Mathare Light Centre – is the biggest, with 400 pupils. Collins Abongo, a teacher at the school, told me the Chinese also sponsor a football tournament among the eight schools.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

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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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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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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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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