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The Death of Michael Alinda: Why Uganda Needs Coroners’ Courts

9 min read.

The mysterious death of an IT technician has exposed gross weaknesses in Uganda’s judicial system, where a reported abduction ending in death can be made to look like an accident, and where a post-mortem report can be disregarded by the police. MARY SERUMAGA examines details of a case that has stunned Ugandans.

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The Death of Michael Alinda: Why Uganda Needs Coroners’ Courts
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Coroners – judicial officials who hold inquiries into unnatural deaths – may not seem very interesting although the Canadian TV series Coroner attracted one million viewers in its first season. A related profession, that of the medical examiner (or pathologist), who may be appointed by a coroner to examine a corpse had its own American reality show, The Medical Examiner, that ran for seven years.

The absence of a (active) coroner in Uganda was felt following the death of the hitherto unknown Michael Alinda, a moderately successful self-employed IT technician and property owner with musical aspirations and a penchant for motorbikes – a twenty-eight year old living his dream regardless of the circumstances. Michael was also a People Power activist. When he died on 4th August at Mulago National Referral Hospital with horrendous facial and other injuries – thereby gaining the name recognition that eluded him in life – his death was examined mainly on social media. There were press conferences held by the police the facts of which were refuted by another held by his siblings and their lawyers. And then there was a TV documentary. Still the death of Michael Alinda (more commonly known as Zigy Wyne) remains a mystery.

It began with his disappearance reported on social media on 22nd July and to Ganda Police post by a neighbour on 27th July, a fact supported by documentary evidence and a police reference number. By the end of the month, People Power activists were tweeting about his disappearance and sharing the information that he updated on social media. In fact, Alinda’s Facebook page shows him to have been diligent in posting news of the fall-out that followed the Arua by-election in August 2018 and the abductions that followed from that difficult time. He also posted about the loss of some land to land grabbers, stating that it was injustices such as these that lead the youth to join opposition politics.

It was only after his death on August 4th that the police became proactively involved. They issued a statement the day after, stating a post-mortem had been carried out (presumably by a medical examiner) and showed that the deceased had suffered blunt force trauma to the head that led to his death. It also revealed “defence injuries” to his fingers “arising out of a struggle”. The thread continues to say a team was being assembled to investigate the murder.

However, the very next day, the same police spokesperson stated that the police was treating the death as a fatal road accident. They said that the accident report was received on the 21st July and that this report had not been presented to the media when this inquiry was being held.

However, in the absence of inquests and the existence of a long history of abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings by the armed forces under the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government, and the People Power activists currently reported missing, it was not entirely surprising that the leader of the People Power movement, Robert Kyagulanyi (himself a survivor of said abduction, torture and near-death), should make a statement to the effect that Alinda had died following abduction and torture. The police confirmed the claim of death by homicide and at the time of writing their announcement of the post-mortem results is still on their Twitter timeline.

Under the Inquests Act of 1935, inquests are mandatory following death by road accident. Had the law been followed, the family and public would have been spared the trauma of prolonged and intense speculation, painful but necessary – essential even – in Museveni’s Uganda. The main benefit of having coroners is the judicial independence they enjoy. On his/her own initiative, s/he would have had the authority to order the medical examination of Alinda’s body to confirm or refute the conflicting reports about the condition it was in. A coroner appointed even after burial has the authority to order the exhumation of the body. This is something even favoured NRM journalists cannot pull off.

On the day of the post-mortem, Alinda’s sister, Immaculate Kiconco, spoke to the media outside the mortuary (from 00:32 to 00:48 ZIGGY WINE; Police to investigate tortured Firebase Musician’s kidnap). For the first time the public was informed of the timeline of his disappearance and discovery by his family in hospital on 29th July. On arrival she was handed a “release letter” which indicated he had been discharged on 25th July, meaning he was unattended for the intervening five days. (Not uncommon in Uganda.) In response to her doubts about removing such a seriously ill patient, she was told all he needed was to eat and take his medicine regularly. They were given a prescription.

The sister described Alinda’s body covered in burns “on different parts”. She also said she had been informed an eye was pierced. In Luganda she said it was so badly damaged it was “dead”. Unfortunately, with characteristic Ugandan inexactitude this became “eye plucked out”. The phrase gained traction and replaced anything more accurate (just as in Uganda to be sued will forever be referred to as being “dragged to court”). Whatever the case, the left eye was clearly visible in the photos of Alinda posted on social media. Apart from that the medic in question told Kiconco that her brother had arrived bleeding profusely from his middle finger.

The family sought the advice of a doctor friend who took one look at Alinda and advised them to take him to a big hospital, a Ugandan idiom distinguishing hospitals from clinics, health centres and dispensaries. They rushed him to the nearby Iran-Uganda Hospital, a modern well- equipped police facility. There the brain scans were examined and the family told immediate surgery was necessary as the injured eye was bleeding into the brain. It remains unclear why the procedure was not carried out at Iran Hospital, but they did provide a police ambulance by which the patient was transferred to the venerable missionary-founded Nsambya Hospital. Further procedures were carried out for which a large amount of money was paid and emergency surgery was again advised. After consultation, the staff and family agreed on a transfer back to Mulago.

After one night in Nsambya ICU, Alinda was re-admitted at Mulago Hospital on 30th July. There the diagnosis of Iran-Uganda Hospital was confirmed by another scan; brain surgery was necessary. Dr Muhumuza said the brain injury would have caused seizures which, in turn, could have moved to his throat, thereby choking him. This being TV and not a Coroners Court, it was not possible to have that testimony subjected to scrutiny by another expert in traumatic brain injury. Discussions about the surgery began on Tuesday 30th July, through Friday 2nd August resuming after the weekend when the doctors did not appear, and ending with Alinda’s death on the 4th of August.

The media became more interested but only NBS TV’s Canary Mugume and the NRM’s Andrew Mwenda had access to Alinda’s medical notes, and purported witnesses of the alleged accident. Mwenda was not expected to bring any sobriety to bear on the inquiry as he habitually refers to the People Power movement followers as hooligans, riff-raff and radical extremists and its leader Bobi Wine as empty-headed and other such political analyses.

Mugume was able to assemble all the witnesses at the scene (as coroners are obliged to do during inquests) and they gave more or less similar testimony – although unsworn because Mugume is not a coroner. The deceased was allegedly speeding, trying to overtake when he was dazzled by an oncoming vehicle, swerved and hit one Loy Atworo before winding up face down in a concrete culvert with his bike on his back. Slight variations include his being hit by a speeding taxi before landing in a ditch. All agree that he must have been burned by the bike although one voice says the bike fell some distance away from him. A woman pointed to a spot on the road where she says she saw Alinda’s severed fingers (she didn’t say how many). The woman victim, Atworo, was said to have been and in fact claimed to have become unconscious immediately although a first responder at the nearby clinic where both victims were allegedly taken states that she was conscious and speaking.

Uganda Radio Network attempted to speak to the “accident” eye-witnesses on the day the police disavowed the post-mortem report but failed as they had been rounded up by the police for investigations. When found a few days later, some said they had expected to be taken to CID headquarters from Kiira Road Police station but were instead driven to State House Nakasero where each was grilled about their account.

The witnesses were then driven home while repeatedly being asked if they were sure of their story. Inexplicably, this potentially damning revelation was syndicated in Mwenda’s The Independent. Mwenda himself never reconciled his own version of events with the police version. He has a different day on which Alinda was found by his family – the 24th and not the 27th. The family insists it was on the 29thth.

His timeline allows Mwenda to state the cause of death was failure to take prescribed anti-seizure medicines “when he was home”. However, there is no point at which Zigy was at home and out of the care of one of three hospitals except while in transit. His claims are based on Mwenda’s interview with Dr Muhumuza, the neurosurgeon who treated the deceased and to whom, like Canary Mugume, he had access. Nsambya Hospital staff observed protocol and declined to discuss the deceased with the media without a court order; only a coroner could have summoned and compelled them to give evidence.

Canary Mugume’s second in-depth coverage of the story alone makes the urgent case for the appointment of a coroner. It has a number of serious omissions, each tending to strengthen the claims of the State and to cast aspersions on the family, friends and political allies of Alinda.

Most glaringly, the NBS Special Report aired on 13th August does not reconcile the conflicting discharge dates; it does not investigate who attended to Alinda between his discharge on the 25th of July and his transfer four days later. The omission has a bearing on the claim that he died from not taking his prescribed drugs.

Furthermore, the reason he did not receive surgery between his re-admission and his death four days later is not probed. Effort is not made to resolve the issue of the post-mortem report but rather is invested in trying to prove the family has no evidence to back up its claims except the undated Mulago out-patients department form indicating TBI (traumatic brain injury), which was displayed at their press conference. One would have expected NBS to point out that the family said at the same presser (which NBS attended three days before the broadcast) that they did have a post-mortem report that was read out at the funeral, as well as snapshots of the Discharge Form dated 25th July and other documents. NBS completely avoids any mention of Iran-Uganda Hospital and the treatment and diagnosis given there. It does not include the very first report alleging an accident given by an unnamed police source to BBC journalist Alan Kasujja stating that one finger was completely severed and another was hanging off.

What did most to undermine the credibility of #NBSSpecialReport was the manner in which it included a clip from the family press conference. The clip was presented with the NBS watermark as though it were part of their work. The fact is the media house only contacted the family after People Power activists challenged Mugume to do so before airing his much-advertised documentary. It was probably this that caused the 24-hour delay in the broadcast.

In the clip, Kiconco repeated the statement she made outside the mortuary nearly a week earlier; that her brother’s eye was so badly damaged it could not be saved. Which is neither “plucked out” (People Power) nor “intact” (Police). However, NBS created the impression that Mugume had caught the family in a lie. Alinda’s family has been publicly warned by the police to desist from withholding information from them and misleading the public with false information. On their part, the family plans to file suit against the police for defamation and against Mulago Hospital for negligence. They also plan to apply to the High Court for the institution of an inquest.

Uganda Police’s conflicting statements, along with their inability to explain how they concluded in the first instance that death was by homicide, only deepened existing public distrust. The “eye-witnesses” are widely believed to have been coached, especially during their visit to State House.

Following a Police announcement that hospital CCTV record had been obtained and was being “restored” at police headquarters, it took eleven days for them to actually produce footage allegedly of the deceased being brought to the hospital by good Samaritans. On examination, the first segment captured in traffic outside the hospital on the date in question shows two or three riders of a boda boda dressed in pale-coloured trousers. The second captured at the hospital gate gives a shot highlighted by the police of three persons on a boda boda. The middle passenger is a lady in a red dress. She sits erect and although she is helped off the bike, she is able to support herself as she enters the hospital. It is date-stamped 1st July 2019, three weeks before Michael Alinda was reported missing.

The laxity only reinforces the belief that he was dumped at Mulago by his torturers the way Francis Zaake MP was dumped at Lubaga Hospital with eye and finger and facial injuries following his abduction in Arua in August 2018.

All parties concerned could have been protected from speculation and injustice had there been an inquest – a public hearing with sworn testimony, named witnesses and an official record. Justice would have been served because written eyewitness statements would have been given in advance to designated interested parties.

Uganda is not alone in this predicament; the Tanganyika Law Society called for the reinstitution of coroners courts in Tanzania after the death of journalist David Mwangosya when police opened fire on a demonstration in 2012. Rather than appoint a coroner, the Ministry of Justice formed a commission of inquiry on which the police were given a seat.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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