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‘Coffee Is a Sentimental Crop, but You Cannot Eat Sentimentality’

11 min read.

DAUTI KAHURA travelled to speak to insiders in the coffee industry and long-suffering farmers, and discovered that the woes which have bedeviled the sector for decades continue to tighten their grip, to the point where Kenyan coffee might soon become a thing of the past.

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‘Coffee Is a Sentimental Crop, but You Cannot Eat Sentimentality’
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On August 2, 2019, the Kenyan government finally put the troubled Kenya Planters Coffee Union (KPCU) under administration. Peter Munya, Cabinet Secretary for Trade and Industrialization said the government had liquated the union because of gross mismanagement.

KPCU, the oldest farmers’ union in the country, and the biggest employer in the agricultural sector in the 1980s, has undergone many trials and tribulations.

“The union [in the 1980s] was so cash-rich that some influential Kanu party mandarins would make it borrow money from ‘good’ banks, which was actually a scheme to launder and siphon money from the union,” said a top-level KPCU insider, who spoke to me strictly in confidence, because he is not authorized to speak on KPCU matters to a journalist, and also because discussing KPCU is a dangerous subject matter, of life and death. “Some of these men would deliver 10 bags of coffee and claim they had delivered 1000 bags, getting paid for one hundred times what they had actually brought in,” said the insider.

Then, as now, there was no robust system of records at KPCU; many of the transactions were not recorded and therefore, it has always been difficult to prove anything, he said. KPCU was a monopoly because all coffee had to be milled by the union, before the liberalization in 1994. “KPCU was not only the only miller, it was the only seller of coffee,” said the insider.

One of the biggest problems that later came to haunt KPCU for the longest time is that it also operated like a bank for coffee farmers. It would lend the farmers money to buy land, for example, to expand their coffee acreage. “Many of the farmers who borrowed money from KPCU were not your ordinary small-scale farmer, but the big-time plantation farmer. With the new regulation in 2001, officially allowing for independent millers, majority of these KPCU loan defaulters refused to pay back the money they had borrowed from the union… they just took their coffee to independent millers from then on,” said the KPCU source.

And that is partly how KPCU found itself in trouble: the people who borrowed money then from KPCU remain some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the country to date.

“The list of KPCU creditors is the who’s who – some in politics, some in the civil service and others in the private businesses. The ones in private business have powerful connections to those in the politics and public service. They are untouchable,”saidthe insider.“To date, KPCU is probably owed KSh4 billion by the big-time coffee farmers who have bluntly refused to pay the loans they took from it.”

At its peak, KPCU sold 120,000 bags of coffee. That was in the 1980s. “Today, it barely sells 30,000 bags, most of it smuggled from Uganda,” said my source. “Made up of 16 board members, only two have post-secondary education, the rest are semi-illiterate and they are in their 70s. The board is a proxy of a powerfulcartel that still runs KPCU like a fiefdom. With a workforce of about 40 employees, the board is right now kicking out anyone who is not related to its members, now that the union has been taken over by the government. At KPCU, the name of the game is blood loyalty. Period.”

In January, 2018, the former Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, Willy Bett, asked the Auditor General to do a forensic audit at the KPCU. “The Auditor General Edward Ouko and his team spent six months at the union and found out that the government owed KPCU about KSh270 million – this is the loan that could be ascertained. If you calculate the base interest rate of about 7–8 percent compounded over a period of 20 years, KPCU would be in a position to comfortably repay its debts and revive its operations,” observed the source. The KPCU insider said there was another KSh200 million that the government allegedly owed the union, “but the money cannot be ascertained because records could not be found.”

The saga and the multifaceted problems bedeviling the coffee farmer in Kenya is a sad story, which can make one break down with emotion over their tribulations.

Tounderstand the woes of the Kenyan small coffee grower,I took a trip to Irembu Farmers Co-operative Society Ltd in Murang’a County, 70km north-east of the capital city Nairobi. Located eight kilometres off Maragua town, the coffee factory yard looked desolate and forlorn. There was a deathly air to it. There was zero activity. The existing infrastructure had been let to rust and rot.

A once thriving factory that in its heyday turned over 60,000kilograms of coffee in one day, and upward of 1.2 million kilograms a year, Irembu Farmers Co-operative Farmers Society is a microcosm of the sorry state that is Kenyan small-scale coffee growers find themselves in today.

The saga and the multifaceted problems bedeviling the coffee farmer in Kenya is a sad story, which can make one break down with emotion over their tribulations.

I was met by the society’s secretary-cum-manager, Salome Wanjiru, a middle-aged woman in her late 40s, who has worked in the coffee industry for more than two decades. “Irembu used to serve 700 members during the halcyon years,” said a nostalgic Salome. “The factory was so busy, it was not unusual for farmers to trans-night at the factory waiting for their turn to hand in their coffee berries.”

That now was in the past. The coffee racks that were used by the factory workers to dry the coffee berries had fallen apart, the wooden stumps half-eaten by termites. The grinding machine is derelict, the manager could not recall the last time it had crushed coffee berries.

“The coffee woes begun in the late 1980s with the onset of the liberalization,” said Salome. “When the free-market policies set in proper in the 1990s, the small-scale coffee grower found it really hard to contend with the new arrangement: of independent millers and freestyle marketing, in which he ceded control of his produce.” The liberalization was as a result of the introduction of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), brought about by the Bretton Woods institutions: the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“During KPCU days, the small-scale coffee grower enjoyed subsidies from the government”, said Salome. “The government in conjunction with the Co-operative Bank – known countrywide as the ‘farmers bank’ would supplement the coffee farmer with farm inputs such as fertilizer and loan advances.” Today there are about 20 independent millers, and hearing Salome speak, it seemed to me the farmers’ woes have multiplied twenty-fold.

“I was educated with the coffee money,” Salome ventured to tell me. “All that my father needed to do is walk into a Co-op bank branch in Murang’a and show the manager his coffee factory delivery number, and he would be loaned money for school fees.” Her story – the story of how she was educated with coffee money is a narrative replicated many times in the lives of many Kenyans from Central Kenya – some of them now influential people in the civil service and politics.

But with liberalization, the emergence of independent millers and coffee brokers put an end to all that. Salome did not mince her words: the government of the day has neglected the small-scale coffee grower. I asked her why. “The small-scale coffee grower has continued to languish in mounting debt and searing poverty, all the while the government looking askance, leaving the farmer mercilessly at the hands of insidious brokers and ruthless millers.”

The coffee racks that were used by the factory workers to dry the coffee berries had fallen apart, the wooden stumps half-eaten by termites. The grinding machine is derelict, the manager could not recall the last time it had crushed coffee berries.

Irembu Farmers Co-operative Society – like many of the coffee co-operative societies across the country–enjoyed its last merry days in the early years of the 1990s. “If my memory serves me right, the years between 1993–1996 were the last time the coffee farmer enjoyed the fruits of his labour,” said Salome. In those years, a kilo of coffee berries averaged KSh40. But in 1997–1998, things changed abruptly: the Irembu farmer was only advanced seven shillings. “After we took our coffee to KPCU, no money was paid for the coffee delivered. What shocked the farmer even more, is that, he was told, he owed money to the co-operative running into hundreds of millions of shillings.”

In the intervening years, the small-scale coffee grower has sunk into despair and hopelessness. Many coffee farmers are now engaged in subsistence farming. Salome showed me erstwhile coffee farms that had been turned into banana and maize farms. “Coffee is a sentimental crop, but you cannot eat sentimentality,” she said. Farmers have agonized over whether to uproot the coffee tree, many have gone on to do so, embittered by the deteriorating coffee prices and their helplessness in controlling the marketing chain.

One of the farmers that has been mulling over whether to uproot his coffee trees is Samuel Kimari. Kimari has been growing coffee on his five-acre farm in Kigumo, also in Murang’a County. He recounted how over the years, the coffee prices have plummeted to a miserly Sh30 per kilo – adjusting for inflation, this is measly. “This is notwithstanding the huge expenses of employing labourers, buying fertilizer and sowing the land,” said Kimari. “The coffee farmer, unlike his counterpart the tea grower, is at the mercy of the coffee cartels which include the collusion of millers and coffee dealers.”

Once the farmer has taken his coffee to the millers, he ceases to have control over his coffee berries, said Kimari. “You cannot even be sure whether the miller is selling your coffee or indeed what has happened to it.” It is the miller who decides how much a farmer is going to be paid for his coffee berries. “The miller collects your coffee, markets it and pegs the price on how much he is going to pay for your coffee, all rolled into one.”

Small-scale coffee farmers in Kenya are treated like slaves, Peter Mwangi Njoroge told me in Maragua town. He is small-scale coffee grower, chairman of Kenya Small-Scale Coffee Growers Association (KESCOGA), a lobby group formed 10 years ago to agitate for the voice of the small-scale coffee growers countrywide. “We read in history that slavery was ended by Abraham Lincoln in the US, but here in Kenya, the coffee farmer is still very much a slave,” lamented Njoroge. “Our leaders have been compromised by the coffee cartel, they look the other way as the coffee farmer is brow beaten by the millers who keep the farmers money.”

Njoroge’s organization, which represents some of the 700,000 small-scale coffee growers countrywide, hopes to resuscitate the small-scale grower coffee farming. Yet, in between animated conversation about the glorious days of coffee farming, skepticism will creep in and he will say something like, “if the government does not do something about the coffee industry woes that have gone on for far too long, coffee farming will soon die and there will be no coffee to drink – here and abroad.”

Njoroge reminded me that Kenya grows one of the best coffee varieties in the world, Arabica, but because production volumes are low, Kenyan Arabica is used to blend with other coffee types like Robusta grown in South America, or in neighbouring Uganda, to come up with a coffee taste that sells all over the world. “Without our coffee, the world would find little to enjoy in drinking one of the finest coffee brews,” said Njoroge.

But, be that as it may, the story of the coffee problems in Kenya is half told if you have not spoken to the club of the big boys who have been growing the crop on large scale plantations. Kiambu County, also in Central Kenya, has been the cradle of coffee growing, since the cash crop was introduced in 1893 by the Scottish missionaries.

As luck would have it, I met Josephat Njoroge and his wife, who are looking for a joint venture to turn his 220-acre coffee plantation into a real estate project. The farm is located just on the outskirts of Kiambu town. “I cannot take it anymore. I have been saddled with so much debt; the bank has been threatening me with auctioning my land if I do not pay their money,” Njoroge told me in the middle of phone calls with potential partners for the JV.

At $990 billion traded in coffee every year, “coffee is the second highest quoted commodity in the world’s stock exchange after oil, but look at the coffee farmers in Kenya. They live like paupers,” said a disenchanted Njoroge. The global coffee enterprise is an upward of $100million (Sh1 trillion dollars), but hardly a fifth of this money reaches the farmer.

The election of Mwai Kibaki in 2002 brought hopes that the coffee sector would be reformed, seeing that Kibaki was from a coffee-growing area and so he must have understood how the coffee farmer was struggling and had been impoverished by the coffee cartels. To his credit, Kibaki reactivated the Stabilisation of Export Earnings – Stabex – a fund provided for by EU-ACP that channelled money through Co-operative Bank, money that was meant to be advanced to farmers, with as low an interest as five percent per year.

“I cannot take it anymore. I have been saddled with so much debt; the bank has been threatening me with auctioning my land if I do not pay their money”

“Yet no sooner had Co-op bank advanced us the Stabex money, than the bank said the money had dried up,” said an agitated Njoroge, who told me the bank now started asking the farmers to pay a 12% rate. “But that was not even the killer. The bank ordered the interest rate to be paid in dollars,” explained Njoroge. “That is when I knew my time was up with coffee growing business.” The bank is now asking the government for an extra Sh1.5 billion, said Njoroge.

Njoroge was unequivocally blunt: “In Kiambu coffee growing will be a thing of the past – make no mistake about it. Look around at the biggest coffee farms in Kiambu – nearly all of them have turned their back on coffee.”

A cursory glance at the plantations confirms Njoroge’s assertions. Socfinaf– one of the largest coffee estates – had converted part of their sprawling Tatu estate into a golf course; a full 600 acres of it. Seven hundred and seventy four acres of the Migaa coffee estate is now scheduled for a gated community housing project next to Ruiru town. Cianda coffee estate, which belonged to the late Kiambu veteran politician Njenga Karume, uprooted the coffee and planted tea instead – all of the 1,000 acres.

Talking of selling, it is allegedly believed Kiamara estate, which is also on the outskirts of Kiambu town–1,000 acres and that belongs to James Karugu, a former Attorney General– has been sold. Karugu’s Kiamara estate is right next to Ibonia estate, 1,000 acres all under coffee. Ibonia is owned by “Sir” Charles Mugane Njonjo, the only coffee estate that seems to be doing well. “I really would like to know how Njonjo has been so successful in his coffee growing,” Njoroge mused loudly. “He is the only coffee farmer among the big boys who has not hinted he is about to sell his plantation.”

Even Kibubuti Farm – a whole 2,000 acres all under coffee has been reconsidering uprooting the coffee trees and converting the land into real estate. Kibubuti is owned by Mike Maina, a hotelier who runs Marble Arc Hotel in Nairobi.

Outside the cradle of the coffee belt in Kiambu, the other area that grew coffee on a large scale was in Kitale. An agricultural settler-like town, Kitale was home to 4,000 acres of land under coffee. The giant farm was called Wamuini Co-operative Society. The farm was run by farmers from Nyeri County. It was divided into Wamuini A, Wamuini B and Wamuini C, etc. But even this humongous farm could not withstand the complexities of what had become the coffee woes of Kenya. The farmers gave up on coffee and now the plantations have been turned into maize and assorted fruits farms.

Like his counterparts, from the small-scale coffee growers, Salome and his namesake Njoroge of KESCOGA, Njoroge believes the 20 millers or so are part of the cartel that have ensured the coffee farmer does not reap from his coffee farming. They are all agreed that the government must step in and reign in on the cartels, give the farmer control over his produce and stabilize the coffee prices. “Coffee is a sentimental crop, no coffee farmer is happy to see his plantation, big or small, turned into concrete jungle,” said Njoroge.

“It is a paradox that coffee farmers did well when KPCU was the only miller in the country,” Njoroge from Kiambu said sadly. It was during this time when the troubled Mbo-i-Kamiti Farm (1,500 acres), one time produced a third of all coffee grown in Kenya. “It is a record that has not been broken to date,” summed up Njoroge.

Will the mess at KPCU and in the coffee sector ever be solved, I asked my KPCU insider source. “Yes. But not by opening the Pandora’s Box. The individuals who owe KPCU money, plus those who have corrupted the industry, include some of the most powerful men in Kenyan politics today. They will fight back because they owe hundreds of millions to KPCU and have no intentions whatsoever of repaying that money. They, therefore, will do anything to stop whoever is pursuing them. Hence, opening the can of worms is an exercise in futility.

“What the government should do is pay back the monies it owes to KPCU, ensure farmers are paid their rightful dues and start afresh. As for the individual defaulters – a truth and reconciliation type of commission should be constituted for the powerful men – to seek penance and be remorseful for their criminal sins.”

 

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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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 or 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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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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