Agriculture, the Millennial Side Hustle: The Story of ‘Telephone Farmers’10 min read.
In the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to make farming “sexy” and lucrative. Mainstream media narratives have showcased farming as a “cool” profession that millennials can engage in either part-time or on a full time basis and still keep their urban lives. But are the technical as well technological tools that are now widespread in this industry enough to make agriculture a lucrative business, or are ‘remote farmers’ likely to be headed for heartbreak?
Victor Rago 23, is a tall lanky fellow, who every inch looks like an IT geek. He is not far from that description: he will be graduating with honours from the University of Nairobi on September 6, 2019, with a degree in industrial and analytical chemistry. His pastime is crunching numbers, and, as he told me, is looking to enter into the word of global financial trading.
But Rago has another pastime, a more lucrative one –farming. “I’ve been farming potatoes in Narok County on a one-acre plot of land,” said Rago. “I cracked the numbers and realized I could be making some tidy sum of surplus cash from the hired piece of land, after I’ve deducted all my expenses.”Rago’s rented potato plot is in Erongitok, five kilometres from Narok town.
“I rent my one-acre land at between Ksh40,000-50,000 per year. When the season is excellent, I’ll reap sack of potatoes every three months, in a good year. It’s a profitable undertaking provided you do your math well,” said the science student. “When its harvest time, I don’t have to go looking for buyers – they will come with their Mitsubishi Fuso trucks straight to the farm and collect the potatoes at the source.” That, he observed, saves him and his buyers from the crafty middlemen and potato crop brokers. “They are a necessary nuisance, but a menace, nonetheless.” This is the one time he must physically be at the farm. “Harvest time happens to be the busiest period, so you don’t want to leave all that work to your employee, or even hired hands. These people are human beings and they are prone to temptations.”
Rago told me the black alluvial soil, the flat land and the sunshine weather in Erongitok is good for potato crop cultivation. “The rains are also dependable, although they can be erratic, but just good enough to grow my potatoes.” His expenses include: hiring a farmhand, equipping him a feature phone (‘mulikamwizi’) and erecting a makeshift structure at the farm for his farmhand to live in during the season. “Labour is cheap, the farmhands are paid between KSh2000–3000, depending on the size of the land and what crop he is looking after. I pay mine KSh2000.”
Ever the ambitious university student, Rago, who has dreams of pursuing a master degree in analytical chemistry, has come to define your archetypal millennial “farmer”: adventure-seeking, entrepreneurial, a little ‘bougie’, techy-savvy, a terribly young man, who when talking about his farming, makes it sound like such a sexy undertaking. Telephone farming may not have started with the millennial, but this generation has sexed-up traditional farming as we know it.
“Modern day farming is today a social enterprise engagement that is being done by (college) students and young corporate types from the confines of their lecture halls and offices,” said Rago. “The friend who introduced and interested me in this side hustle is a financial consultant with an office in Nairobi CBD, who has been farming hay and potatoes on a large scale in Erongitok.” Rago said his friend was now even thinking of diversifying his telephone farming into keeping livestock – cows, goats and sheep. “Ërongitok and Ntulele(an area just before you reach Narok town from Nairobi city), are good for livestock keeping because there’s a lot of fodder and expansive land for the animals to graze,” Rago’s said his friend.
Rago has come to define your archetypal millennial “farmer”: adventure-seeking, entrepreneurial, a little ‘bougie’, techy-savvy, a terribly young man, who, when talking about his farming, makes it sound like such a sexy undertaking.
According to Rago, his friend told him that traditional farming as practised by our parents is waning – with the advancement in technology– you need not always be physically present at the farm. “Just invest in the right technological tools and personnel and you can engage in farming activities from wherever you are.’” In the coming years, the next big money to be made in this country is in the food production, said Rago’s friend. “But in the meantime, what’s wrong in making hay while the sun shines?”
Rago told me he has never thought of himself strictly as a farmer, “I wouldn’t say farming is my passion – it is not – but as an up and coming social entrepreneur, I’m always looking for opportunities to make a fast buck: this potato farming has been affording me some extra cash, while at the same time contributing to the country’s food production. I would like to think of myself as a patriotic Kenyan who’s playing his dutiful role as a food producer.”
Unlike Rago, Susan Wanjiku 32, has a full-time job, working for a local NGO in Nairobi. Wanjiku took me to her farm in Kamulu, 25 km east of Nairobi’s CBD. From Kamulu, a fast-growing trading centre, we rode a boda boda that took us eight kilometres, deep into the farmland area, which borders Ukambani on the northern side. “I grow watermelons on my half an acre plot. As you might be aware, watermelon is a succulent fruit that does not need lots of water. So, apart from investing in irrigation drips, the black cotton soil is good because, when it rains, the soils become water-logged, hence, can retain moisture and water for as long as the dry spell persists.”
“I consider my farming as an extra-curricular activity: it pre-occupies me over the weekend and any other time when I’m not going to the office,” said Wanjiku, who considers herself a millennial in every sense of the word. “I grew up in the rural area and my parents were subsistence farmers. Today when I tell them that I’m a farmer who doesn’t need to tend to the farm personally, they really get amused.”
Wanjiku says that farming is a good income earner that supplements her wages. “These December holidays, I’ll be going to Kikambala beach, thanks to my fruit farming.”This is her fourth year growing watermelons, “and I can tell you that watermelon farmers cannot satiate the market – the fruit is one of the most popular among the fruit-thirsty Kenyans – if only I could find more land to grow them,” she mused.
Wanjiku lives in South B and she can afford to visit her farm every so often, especially on weekends and when she gets a day or two away from the office.“Mobile telephony is the greatest thing that happened in this millennium, all I need to do is pick up my phone, call my farm-worker to get updates or pass information on what I need done on the farm, without interrupting my day-to-day work.”
Wanjiku, who is employed as a personal secretary, says she has a passion for farming: “I love everything to do with the earth and what germinates from it, I love the soil, I like the fact that when I visit my farm, I wear my gumboots and wade in the muddy clay soil.” When you get it right farming is very profitable. To this end, every Saturday, she never misses her Saturday Nation newspaper pullout – Seeds of Gold – that chronicles, farming “success” stories that have been apparently glamourized and hyped modern-day agriculture; from breeding exotic goats for milk production, to urban farming done on rooftops. She reads the magazine, aptly, on her excursions to the farm every Saturday morning.
“But what really gave me the impetus to pursue my passion in farming are the seminars that I’ve been attending at the Latia Resource Centre Farm,” said Wanjiku. “The 60-acre demonstration farm in Isinya in Kajiado County, has a big lecture room, fully equipped with chairs and an erasure board and runs short courses for “urban” farmers and people who would like to invest in agri-business.”
“I love everything to do with the earth and what germinates from it, I love the soil, I like the fact that when I visit my farm, I wear my gumboots and wade in the muddy clay soil.”
The farm, which grows different types of crops, some grown organically – from carrots to cucumbers, from lemons to lettuce and from potatoes to tomatoes, has the latest demonstration farming techniques and information on technology-driven agriculture. When I visited the farm recently, the farm had just installed state-of-the-art greenhouses from The Netherlands. It was also host to some South African farmers from Orange Free State province.
For Anthony Namodi, remote farming came to him by default: “I inherited a two-acre farm from my parents, part of a larger farm that they had been farming in Nzoia scheme in Kakamega County.”The 34-year-old dairy farming consultant, based in Nakuru, said he decided to continue growing maize, which his parents had been doing for ages. “I couldn’t go wrong with maize farming because, I understood all the motions of growing the crop. I was walking a well-worn path. The one challenge that I faced though, was that I was going to be a telephone farmer, since I wasn’t available to look after the farm myself,” said Namodi.
So, using his smartphone, Namodi goes through the motions of telephone farming, by giving instructions to his workers on how he wants the farm tended every new season. “Once my supervisor alerts me on the impending rain, I begin putting together resources for tilling the land with a tractor, buying the required amount of fertilizer and the necessary amount of seed, then send the money to him. It is really telephone farming, because my supervisor must also spend considerable time on the phone, as we discuss back and forth on the farming process.”
Four years into telephone farming, Namodi points out that this type of farming has its own challenges. “Since most of the time you’re not there to oversee your own farming, a telephone farmer has always to cross his fingers and pray that his instructions are followed to the letter.” Many times, workers have a way of ignoring instructions given by the owner of the farm, observes Namodi. They presume they know better since they are ‘on the ground’ and therefore they know what ought to be done. It is always a big tussle, especially for someone like me, who is an agriculturalist, and knowledgeable in the dynamics of farming techniques.”
Frequently, many farm workers want to cut corners, says Namodi, which ends up compromising quality. “If, for example, you send them money to buy a dozen bags of fertilizer and a specific type of seed, they will shortchange you on the number of fertilizer bags –meaning they will buy less bags and compromise on the quality of the seed – by buying an inferior prototype.” The dairy farming consultant said it is always a constant struggle to ensure that his instructions are properly adhered to and the workers are not stealing from him. “I came to realize that my workers always inflate prices of farm inputs because I’m not there to ascertain those prices. Every time I have the time to be on the ground, I always negotiate better prices for my farming inputs.”
Namodi’s three biggest challenges in telephone farming are therefore: cost, uncertainty of whether his instructions have been implemented properly, and quality control. “This is not to say that I’m not eternally grateful for the invention of the smart mobile phone. My workers will always take pictures of the farm, to capture and record the progress for me on WhatsApp, as they keep me abreast of what’s happening to the farm constantly. I don’t have to be present to remit their payments or indeed any payments that maybe needed urgently.” Technology has made farming as a real-time activity, he added.
Namodi concluded his telephone farming has been a mixed bag of success: “I usually harvest 15 bags of maize per acre, for which I sell KSh2000 per bag. But I must warn profitability depends on the season – if for some reason, there wasn’t enough rain, the harvest suffers. That notwithstanding, I will tell you without a doubt, farming is the business of the future.”
Yet, telephone farming is not a preserve of the odd adventurer millennial. George Mukoya, 64, has been engaging in remote farming for 20 years, since 1999. A consultant in the energy sector, Mukoya is a farmer by choice and has been farming his six-acre farm in Ndalu scheme through the telephone for those many years. “I farm maize and beans.I’m amused by these young people who wonder how telephone farming used to take place before the advent of the mobile phone. In 1999, mobile phone was still a novelty in Kenya, a preserve of the plutocrats, I don’t remember any of my friends owning a mobile phone.”
Namodi’s three biggest challenges in telephone farming are therefore: cost, uncertainty of whether his instructions have been implemented properly, and quality control.
Mukoya said in those pre-mobile phone days, he conducted his remote farming by writing letters to his workers, sending someone to the farm and travelling by himself to supervise the farming process. “There was indeed a lot of pre-planning.” When he compares those days and now, Mukoya, who got the “farming bug” from his uncle, today truly appreciates where he has come from with his remote farming: “farming can now be done in real-time by the smartphone, it is amazing how technology can alter our livelihoods and lifestyles for the better.”
With the smartphone technology, Mukoya says he can check on the weather patterns, research on the latest types of seeds, and get real-time updates from his farm workers. The telephone farming for him has been profitable, but of course, just like any other engagement run remotely, it has had its challenges. “The biggest challenge is of course trust issues from your workers: they will cheat and steal from you, all the time.” Therefore the two times that he must ensure he is present at the farm is during the sowing and harvesting time.
For the millennial who may falsely believe that telephone farming is their “invention” because mobile telephony happened in their time, they would be shocked to learn that remote farming preceded their generation.
As far back as in the mid-1980s – when the term millennial had not even been coined – Samuel Onsango, now fully retired, was already engaging in telephone farming. Then a full-time employee of the British American Tobacco (BAT) company, the company contracted him to be running their tobacco farms in Migori and Sirare, in Migori County, then referred to as South Nyanza.
“It was my duty to organize the farmers, ensure they have been supplied with all the farm inputs that they need, prepare their farms in good time during the sowing period and most importantly, always remit their payments on time without delay. All this, I did on my own time, not on the company’s time,” said the 74-year-old Osango. “I travelled a lot then. Every other weekend, I was on the move, to check on the farmers, to ensure they were maintaining the strict quality control demanded of them by the contracting company.”
The telephone farming for him has been profitable, but of course, just like any other engagement run remotely, it has had it challenges. “The biggest challenge is of course trust issues from your workers: they will cheat and steal from you, all the time.”
This was telephone farming by any other name, said Onsango, because I ran the farms from Nairobi, which then was seen as very far away. The best means to travel then to Migoriwas by the overnight bus. Onsango said every trip he made to Migori and Sirare had to be accounted for and add value – both to him and the farmers. And as long as everybody played their roles and delivered results, everyone was happy.
The success of Onsango’s tobacco remote farming did not go unnoticed: “Word got around to East African Breweries Limited (EABL), that I was the force behind the successfully organized tobacco farms of South Nyanza,” said the retired cigarette maker. “Soon the beer company contracted me to be overseeing their barley and wheat farms of Narok. I used the same techniques I employed to handle the tobacco farmers: visit them regularly, listen to their demands, inspect the farms, deliver farm inputs on time, as I also paid them on time.
As Onsango managed BAT and EABL farms, from Nairobi, he reckoned he could also manage his own remote farming. In the late 1980s, he bought a 100-acres in Cherangani scheme in Kitale and was soon planting maize. “It was enjoyable and an adrenaline-driven activity as long as I was young and energetic,” said the mzee. “You can only do so much telephone farming. In 2000, I retired from everything.”
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
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The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
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.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
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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