Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture11 min read.
TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA explores how state-sanctioned violence – a remnant of colonialism and the country’s liberation war – has become normalised in Zimbabwe.
Taking the latest protests engulfing Zimbabwe since the 16th of August 2019, the article looks at how state repression against the opposition and the brutal crackdown on civil society activists are remnants of the country’s historic liberation war days. Instead of ‘smashing’ the colonial-settler brutal state security apparatus, the post-colonial nationalist class re-fashioned it and used its Chinese/Russian trained officers to build a total surveillance state that abducts, kidnaps, tortures, kills, and brutalises citizens, especially those belonging to the opposition.
This article gives the example of three activists who were abducted, tortured, and some who disappeared and points to how the state security apparatus has remained outside the bounds of accountability, and is funded heavily through budget and extra-budget means. To achieve its political ends, the ruling class is deliberately tiptoeing around much needed legislative and political reforms set out by the 2013 Constitution, which was won after a decade of political contest.
The article ends by pointing out that the opposition has qualitatively changed from the ‘old guard’ like Morgan Tsvangirai to a new younger and more impatient leadership under Nelson Chamisa. Add to this, the explosive concoction of unemployed, poor working-class conditions, economic informality, urban slums and the ruling political class, already suffering from intra-party factional fights, has a real political contest on its hands – in Zimbabwe a hungry man is very angry.
State-sponsored abductions, kidnapping and torture
The first. Tonderai Ndira.
A young activist belonging to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by the former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai. He was an activist from the poor working-class neighbourhood of Mabvuku-Tafara, a few kilometres east of Harare that was a hotbed of opposition activism.
When they came for him, it was just before dawn on the 14th of May 2008. Just weeks from an election. In the cover of darkness. They rammed in into the house. No warrant. Just brutal force. They were almost a dozen of them, some clad in balaclavas, brandishing the infamous AK-47s in front of his wife and two young kids. He had no chance. Outnumbered. Outgunned. Dazed in his sleep. His wife and children screaming and all caught up in the maelstrom. They dragged him out with only his underwear. That was the last time his family saw him alive. As soon as the wife realised what had happened, she alerted neighbours, the party leadership and human rights activists. The search began and it led nowhere. After a few days those searching for ‘Dread’ Tonde turned to hospitals.
When they finally found him, it was a harrowing scene. They discovered his body by mistake on the Parirenyatwa morgue. Tonderai’s body had been left to rot in an open field in Goromonzi, which is rumoured to have the intelligence torture chamber built under Ian Smith in the 1960s. His bones were broken in several places. His jaw bone was shattered. There were multiple stab wounds. His tongue had been cut out. There was a bullet wound through the heart indicating that he was shot at close range. His skull had been clobbered with what looked like a blow from a steel hammer. It was an extra-judicial sadistic cold-blooded murder. His almost decomposing torso had evidence of extreme torture.
His wife would only identify him from a ring he had. His father had problems identifying his son. It is likely that they would have drugged him to make him unconscious, cuffed his hands, tied his legs, put the dreaded hoodie around his neck and then severely tortured him. They knew he was a fighter and they would have come prepared. Morgan Tsvangirai called the murder ‘callous’ at the funeral and a researcher, Sam Wilkins, would conclude in the Journal of Southern African Studies (Volume 39, December 2003) that Tonderai Ndira was ‘legendary’, a ‘peacemaker’, a ‘street fighter’, ‘charismatic’, ‘visionary’ and a ‘comedian’.
When they finally found him, it was a harrowing scene. They discovered his body by mistake on the Parirenyatwa morgue. Tonderai’s body had been left to rot in an open field in Goromonzi, which is rumoured to have the intelligence torture chamber built under Ian Smith in the 1960s.
It would later emerge that the violence of May, June, July and August in 2008 was a well-coordinated military operation, that the commanders who executed the coup of 2017 were in control and that the current president, Emerson Mnagagwa, was the anchor of that unprecedented mayhem. They wanted to send a message to the core activists of the MDC that the state was watching and to strike fear. By the time that orgy of violence was over in 2008, the MDC would allege that over 500 of its activists had been murdered and some had just simply disappeared. Since then there are rumours that just outside Marondera, less than 100 km to the east of Harare, there is a dam where locals claim ruling party activists tied ropes and granite stones around opposition activists and threw them to sink to the bottom.
The second, a young radical journalist. Itai Dzamara.
He was vociferous about the socio-economic collapse in Zimbabwe. Itai was daring. He had been arrested, beaten up and roughed up a few times. Despite this, he kept going back to Africa Unity Square in the middle of Harare not far from the Munhumutapa Government complex and right adjacent to the Parliament building. With a few comrades they had started what was called Occupy Africa Unity Square Movement. Sometimes they slept there, sometimes they held placards but they kept going back.
The nation was starting to notice and the opposition leader made a visit. What was initially an inconvenience for the Robert Mugabe regime was becoming a rallying point. They went for him first with the usual propaganda and when that didn’t seem to deter him, they finally went for his neck. Itai had become a vocal critic of the Mugabe-led government. He was arrested. He was beaten up and detained on several occasions. His protest message was simple: ‘FAILED MUGABE MUST STEP DOWN’.
When they went for him it was in broad daylight. Witnesses said they saw an all-terrain vehicle circling the barbershop. Itai Dzamara was convinced that it was a vehicle that belonged to the intelligence services. In the poor urban streets of Glen Norah, the expensive car, the well-fed men and the guns stuck out like a sore thumb. They pounced on him stealthily, accusing him of being a ‘cattle rustler’. The kidnappers cuffed him, threw him into the vehicle and sped off. The vehicle had no number plates. They were armed with the infamous AK-47s. It was a signature state-sanctioned operation.
The nation was starting to notice and the opposition leader made a visit. What was initially an inconvenience for the Robert Mugabe regime was becoming a rallying point. They went for him first with the usual propaganda and when that didn’t seem to deter him, they finally went for his neck.
Since then the young journalist has never been seen. The ruling political class said the journalist had arranged his own abduction. His wife and two kids were left in the horror and constant trauma that they too could be targeted by the state security. Since then accusations and counter-accusations have flown around. The state propaganda even went as far as claiming that Itai Dzamara had organised his own kidnapping. It would later take a High Court application and several pleadings in Parliament for the police to even feign some level of investigation into the disappearance.
The third, a human rights activist. Jestina Mukoko.
She now chairs the NGO Human Rights Forum. She was the Director of Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP). Jestina had also worked for Radio Voice of the People whose studio in Harare was bombed in the middle of the night in August of 2002. The printing press of the Daily News had suffered a similar fate days after Professor Jonathan Moyo had declared that it was time to “put a final stop to this madness”.
While ZPP is a small organisation, they had devised a network of peace activists across the country who document political violence and they filed detailed reports of who was doing what, when, how and against whom. The security apparatus was watching and they feared the concrete evidence that ZPP was slowly and meticulously gathering. They went for her in the dead of the night. In the cover of darkness, with no warrant, no identification cards, bundled her into a car in a nightdress, firearms openly displayed, drove off into the night and definitely not to a police station.
She would later testify that she was blindfolded on several occasions, threatened with execution, severely beaten with a piece of iron and horse pipe under her feet until they were swollen (falanga method) and interrogated almost daily by people who were demanding ZPP documents. By the time they were done, in three weeks’ time, she mysteriously appeared at court charged with ‘recruiting’ or ‘attempting to recruit’ young men to ‘undergo military training’ in order to commit ‘insurgency, banditry, sabotage or terrorism in Zimbabwe’. When she challenged the prosecution in the Constitutional Court, the court stayed the prosecution and the learned judges were stating the following:
It is clear from the facts that at the time the State security agents kidnapped the applicant from home and later detained her at the secret place, they did not have reasonable suspicion of her having committed the criminal offence she was later charged with. They then used torture, inhuman and degrading treatment during interrogation to extract from her information or evidence on which they expected that the public prosecutor would act as a basis of a reasonable suspicion of her having committed the criminal offence with which she was then charged. (Judgment No. SC 11/12 Const. Application No. 36/09)
Jestina Mukoko, supported by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) sued the Ministry of Home Affairs and was awarded damages. The people behind the unlawful abduction and torture were never exposed or prosecuted. She would later write a book titled The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko: The Fight for Human Rights in Zimbabwe chronicling the most sordid and chilling details of Zimbabwe’s ‘shadowy’ state.
Jestina Mukoko’s and the pattern of abductions of activists reads like the scripts from colonial Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa or the scenes described in The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksander Solzhenitysn. In defence of its class position and the ruling networks, Zimbabwe’s state security apparatus has flourished, with largesse straight from the state. The country’s presidents have shown no appetite for making them accountable.
Trauma and tactics of war: Impunity and unaccountability
In the 1980s, the then president, Robert Mugabe, appointed the Chihambakwe Commission to investigate the now infamous killings called Gukurahunnd, by the 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA). The commission report was never published.
The current president appointed the Motlanthe Commission to investigate the 1st of August 2017 killings in Harare just after the elections of July 2017. The recommendations of the commission remain unimplemented. Prosecutions have happened. In an interview with the Zimbabwe Television Network (ZTN), the Chief of the Defence Forces, Commander Valerio Sibanda, blamed a ‘third force’ and claimed after that after one year investigations are continuing. But once in a while the president revealed openly the way the state, party and military have become deliberately conflated:
We must be respected. We are the majority. We are the people. We are the government. We are the army. We are the army. We are the Air Force. We are the army. We are the police. We are everything you can think of. We determine who can do mining in Zimbabwe. We determine who can construct a railway line in Zimbabwe. We determine who can build a road in Zimbabwe. No other party can do so. (President Emerson Mnagangwa, 8th of May 2019)
But to learn how this came to be we have to look into the history of the liberation national liberation movement in Southern Africa. Liberation wars were a very, very messy affair. Comrades turned on comrades, colonial governments infiltrated liberation movements and, in extreme cases, used targeted assassinations to eliminate leaders.
In the midst of that maelstrom, liberation movements developed very cruel and brutal means of dealing with opponents. These divisions went to the heart of the movements and the nationalists became paranoid. Those with political ambition exploited the lapses and fanned ethnic and regional differences. The contradictions were captured in a former liberation army commander’s autobiography written by Wilfred Mhanda: Dzino: Memoirs of A Freedom Fighter (2011) and also in Fay Chung’s Reliving the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006)
In the liberation camps itself, faction turned against faction with fatal consequences. This security paranoia spilled over into the independence era and the nationalists found a network of state institutions, detention facilities and torture tactics that had been developed by the settler-colonial regime. To the very brutal, totally vicious security apparatus left by white colonial-setter colonial Rhodesia, the national liberation movement added lessons from China and Russia who had often trained both the military and intelligence officers.
In the midst of that maelstrom, liberation movements developed very cruel and brutal means of dealing with opponents. These divisions went to the heart of the movements and the nationalists became paranoid. Those with political ambition exploited the lapses and fanned ethnic and regional differences.
Zimbabwe’s current president was in charge of that state security apparatus, which was fanned across the country and embedded into society, from overt intelligence officers in every district office to covert intelligence officers across the major institutions across the country ranging, from universities and straight into hotels. The current First Lady is a former intelligence officer deployed in the hospitality sector. The country has become a total Stalinist surveillance society.
Trashing or fulfilling the Constitution of 2013?
As Zimbabwe’s political class pushes the country to the brink, the Constitution of 2013 has become a new battleground pitting the ruling party against the opposition led by Nelson Chamisa. The government is engaged in a very deliberate process of watering down the liberal rights regime introduced by the Constitution of 2013. On the other hand, the opposition has started to push back, arguing that the ruling political class is delaying reforms and making sure the old political landscape of authoritarianism is entrenched. This was captured well by journalist Hopewell Chinono:
We have a newish constitution, newish because it is now six years old. It was put to a national vote through a referendum and agreed upon by the whole country. Up to now the laws of our country have not been aligned to that constitution which was put in place just a few months before the current President became Minister of Justice in August of 2013. He held this Justice portfolio until November of 2017 when he subsequently became the country’s President, so he is aware of what needs to be done to fix this issue, all he needs is the political will to do it. (Nehanda Radio, 15 June 2019)
Zimbabwe’s nationalist-military class is also building and serving conspiracy stories in large doses. At some point they blame the opposition for not joining a state-directed dialogue process; at another time they blame ‘foreign nationals’ of training bandits, at another time they arrest civil society activists for attempting to ‘subvert an elected government’ and yet another time they blame the collapse to ‘sanctions’. The Sunday Mail, a government-controlled paper, continues with this line, stating that “Government and security officials have been consistently warning that the there is a ‘third hand’ behind the disturbances that have been plaguing Zimbabwe since the July 30 2018 elections.” (18 August 2019).
The president preaches reform but only tinkers with the Public Order Security Act (POSA), promises media reform and opening up the media landscape but appeals a judgment by the High Court that the public broadcaster is biased. The president promises a crackdown against corruption but appoints the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of his key allies as Chair of Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC).
The charade then consists of a few arrests of bureaucrats and a minister but totally ignores a damning disclosure by the Ministry of Finance, in Parliament, that they do not have paperwork to account for US$3billion disbursed under the ‘command agriculture’ programme. Command agriculture superintended by the military continues to be funded from the budget and was arguably used as an open cheque to fund the military coup of November 2017. The president preaches ‘austerity for prosperity’ but charters luxury jets. But this state of affairs is driving a new wave of despair and more protest.
Winds of protest: The qualitative change in the opposition
In February of 2016, the leader of the main opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, passed on after a battle with cancer. Initial instability in the party has quietened down. But there is also another qualitative change in the opposition. The MDC Alliance leadership is now dominated by former student leaders. These former student leaders are not afraid of protests; most of them have been tortured, detained in jails before, some have been charged of ‘treason and subversion’, some have been exiled before and they all share strong levels of solidarity. They have no links to the liberation movement and they have a long-running disdain for the ruling political class.
The MDC Alliance have started a national mobilisation process aimed at having rolling mass protests. While the High Court stopped the initial protest on the 16th of August 2019 and the police issued ‘prohibition orders’, Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition, stated that they will not backing down, saying the following:
7/15.Throughout the course of history no oppressed people have achieved freedom by complying with the dictates of an unjust system. They have challenged it. This is the historic task of our people our generation. The system a vicious machinery but the people have a valiant spirit.
15/15.In the days, weeks and months ahead, peaceful action is our force. To the people who will come out to express themselves we say it’s important to exercise your rights and to do so peacefully. (Nelson Chamisa, Twitter posts, 17 August 2019)
The United Nations has estimated that close to 5 million people will need food aid in the 2019-2020 farming season. In urban areas, the socio-economic crisis is radicalising unemployed youth and the routine deployment of police, army and security services is putting the national psyche on knife’s edge.
Electricity is gone two-thirds of the day, cholera and typhoid is stalking the urban populace, jobs are nowhere to be found, inflation is spiralling out of control, fuel shortages are the new normal, income is fast collapsing, unions are threatening strikes and the ruling party is beset by far-reaching factional contests. If one were to place a finger on the nation’s urban areas one can feel the intense palpitations of a nation-state hurtling on auto-pilot and the political class is preaching to itself about ‘third force’ conspiracies.
The political class would do well to heed that warning by Bob Nester Marley –in Zimbabwe a hungry man is an angry man.
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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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