The Sinicization of Christianity: How China Is Responding to Religious Threats11 min read.
China is fending off the influence of religion, particularly Christianity, by “rewriting” the Bible, and adapting it to the goals of the ruling Communist Party – which include becoming the world’s most influential superpower.
It is around 4.00 pm on an easy, quiet Sunday. At the Kingdom Hall in the upscale suburb of Kilimani, off Elgeyo Marakwet Road, a church service begins with a song. Kingdom Hall is where the Christian denomination of the Jehovah Witness (JW) meets to praise and worship God. In fact, unlike many other Christian denominations, they call their church service a Christian meeting.
After the song, the congregants will pray and then follow the prayer with a 30-minute Bible lecture. The lecture could be on any of the ethical and moral scriptural teachings, as captured in one of the more famous JW’s teaching tracts, Watch Tower. The other is Awake magazine. While, Watch Tower deals with biblical teaching, Awake tends to concentrate on contemporary issues. These two pocket-size, simple and well-written, and available in many of the world’s languages, including African languages, have been the selling point of JW’s proselytising mission wherever they are stationed.
The Bible lecture is followed by a one-hour discussion on the selected theme of the late afternoon. The discursive session closes with a song and then a prayer, just like it had begun. Unlike many of JW’s meeting across the country, this is a special meeting: the Bible, the prayers, songs, the Awake and Watch Tower tracts are all in Mandarin. And that’s because the worshippers are Chinese expatriates and migrants living in Nairobi.
“The Jehovah Witness believe in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to all people, in their languages and without discrimination,” says one of the Chinese converts, who didn’t want to be named. Even though they are thousands of kilometres away from mainland China, the Chinese, wherever they are, are wary of the Communist Party of China (CPC)’s surveillance on Chinese citizens abroad. “Especially when they are engaging in activities considered anathema to CPC’s national interests – like participating in religious activities.”
This particular meeting comprises Chinese entrepreneurs and high society Chinese men and women living in Nairobi. The congregation number between 50 and 60 worshippers. They are joined by a smattering of Kenyan JWs who speak and understand Mandarin. “In its mission to spread its creed to all the peoples of this world, Jehovah Witness in Kenya grabbed the chance to evangelise to the discerning Chinese foreigners in the country,” said a Kenyan JW adherent, who speaks fluent Mandarin and attends the church meeting.
The Kenyan, who also sought anonymity, told me that the Jehovah Witness has one of the most robust websites of any religious organisations in the world. “We have Bible teachings, general information, messages and notices, practically in all the major languages of the world.”
The Jehovah Witness is a good place to commune and worship because it offers a convivial experience of oneness, there’s spirit of brotherhood and there isn’t any racial discrimination,” said one of the Chinese Jehovah Witness.
Ge Yuchen, in his article, “Chinese Migrants in Kenya: Why Do They Seek Religion?” quotes a Chinese dentist who says, “Jehovah Witness is not only a church that forsakes all kinds of racial prejudices, but also an ideal place for interacting with the local people. It is an excellent place for social communication.”
Yet,it has not always been easy for the Jehovah Witness to reach out to some of these Chinese expatriates. “The Chinese living in Kenya are segmented: there are those that come through government agencies such as the China Global Television Network (CGTN), a public broadcasting station that used to be China Central Television (CCTV), Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, road construction workers, and those who migrant on their own in search of freedom (subjective as it may sound) and business opportunities,” said the Kenyan JW, who speaks Mandarin and lived in China in the early years of this century.
“Chinese working for the government cannot be seen in or go anywhere near a church sanctuary or a religious gathering – Big Brother CPC is ever alert to Chinese flouting its rules and the punishment can be dire once you’re recalled or when back for home holidays,” said the Kenyan.
He said he learned this when visiting a Chinese friend who works for a huge construction firm and who he got interested in an Awake magazine. “We Jehovah Witnesses are called to spread the ‘good news’ to all the people, wherever we meet them, more so, to people who may have not heard about Jesus Christ. That’s why we carry these tracts wherever we go.” But as soon as he was done seeing his friend, the supervisor approached and told him never to discuss religious matters with any of the Chinese workers.
“Chinese working for the government cannot be seen in or go anywhere near a church sanctuary or a religious gathering – Big Brother CPC is ever alert to Chinese flouting its rules and the punishment can be dire once you’re recalled or when back for home holidays”
The Chinese migrants in Kenya not only attend the JW meetings, they also attend other churches, mostly evangelical/Pentecostal churches, while a few are to be found in the mainstream churches such as the Catholic and Protestant churches. However, no Chinese person living in Kenya wants to discuss his or her religious beliefs, especially to a non-Chinese stranger. So, although Wang Wei (not his real name) has lived in Kenya since the turn of the century, and converted to Catholicism, and is today a parish member of a well-known Catholic parish, he pleaded that I should not expose him.
“For some of the tens of thousands of Chinese businessmen and entrepreneurs who are working in Kenya, following religious creeds helps to establish good codes of conduct in their business operations. Those who convert to Christianity are often able to receive positive recognition from the public. The way that they look at their situation and surroundings is also often altered for the better.
“By deliberately guiding us the exploration of life pursuit, the Bible is just like a beacon which gives us light and illuminates the dark roads forward,’ said Mr. F, a middle-aged merchant who trades in shoes in coastal Mombasa,” writes Yuchen. He continues:
“Perhaps most significantly, believing in a religion seems to allow foreign residents in Kenya to integrate into the local community more easily. In particular, believing in Christianity helps Chinese residents understand the local culture and lifestyle. In contrast, according to Mr. D., as a result of a reluctance of learning and understanding the local people’s lifestyles, many Chinese residents have failed to assimilate into the local social environment of Kenya. When I spoke with a few Chinese employees at a company on Nairobi’s Mombasa Road, they described how they seldom have any opportunities to interact with locals.”
Conversion as a means of assimilation
In his article “How Africa is Converting China”, Christopher Rhodes, a Boston University don who has been studying Chinese migrants in Eastern Africa and their affinity to Christianity, observes, “Many Chinese who have gone abroad, especially Africa, have met alien cultures and traditions – leaving them feeling alone and foreign.”
For many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live and work in Africa, life is often not easy. Low pay, long hours and extended assignments in unfamiliar cultures often lead to feelings of isolation and disillusionment, says journalist Eric Olander. “Connections with friends and family back home, largely using WeChat, are often difficult to maintain over extended periods of time, which prompts some to look for comfort closer to home. And in places like East Africa, some of these disaffected workers are finding their way into the evangelical Christian community that is so pervasive in that part of the continent. Seeing the opportunity to grow their parishes, church leaders are readily embracing this new population with services in Mandarin and other Chinese dialects.”
But after they return to China, notes Olander, they become a potential problem for the Chinese Communist Party, which imposes strict regulations on religion and bans any unapproved religious activity.
Therefore, in an interesting twist of fate, these Chinese have found religious solace in the evangelical Christianity of the Pentecostal persuasion that has been spreading so fast in sub-Saharan Africa, like the devastating bush fires wreaking havoc in New South Wales, Australia. Spurred on by an expansionist ambition and appetite to attract new converts to swell their numbers, these churches have stumbled upon a ready fishing ground of a people in search of fellowship and meaning.
For many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who live and work in Africa, life is often not easy. Low pay, long hours and extended assignments in unfamiliar cultures often lead to feelings of isolation and disillusionment, says journalist Eric Olander.
For these churches, winning the souls of the Chinese is a big project, especially seen in the wider context of the fact that many of the evangelical churches in Kenya and Africa are proxies of mother churches in the US. Hence, bankrolled by those organisations to carry their global agenda, part of which is to spread the American version of Christianity through evangelical Christianity. Similarly, for the migrant Chinese, attending a church service freely and openly, unhinged and uninhibited, is a liberating experience of religious expression and belief in a supra-natural deity other than the CPC. In mainland China, this is practically impossible.
Christianity in China
“Religious freedom in China has really reached to the worst level that has not been seen since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao (Zedong) in the 1960s,” writes Samuel Smith, a journalist with the Christian Post. He points out that the Chinese government is supervising a five-year plan to make Christianity more compatible with socialism. There will be a “rewrite” of the Bible. According to a prominent religious freedom activist, the Rev. Bob Fu, the revision of religious regulations will actively guide religion to “adapt to socialist society.”
Religious control in China today is even more severe than it was even just a few years ago, observes Rhodes. “The CPC has always been anti-religion, but after (Premier) Xi Jinping assumed Party control in 2012, China enacted a level of religious persecution not seen since Mao attempted to eliminate religion and other sources of dissent during the bloody Cultural Revolution.”
The plan proposes “cultivating and implementing the socialist core values.” One way in which they plan to “Sinicize” Christianity, Fu is quoted saying, is by “re-translating” the Old Testament and providing new commentary to the New Testament to make socialist ideals and Chinese culture seem more divine. Fu said that in order to comply with the new religious regulations, the Three Self-Patriotic Movement and the Chinese Christian Council (China’s state-sanctioned Protestant bodies), have developed a five-year plan on “promoting the Sinicization of Christianity.”
“Religious freedom in China has really reached to the worst level that has not been seen since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao (Zedong) in the 1960s,” writes Samuel Smith, a journalist with the Christian Post. He points out that the Chinese government is supervising a five-year plan to make Christianity more compatible with socialism.
Thence, posits Rhodes, Catholics in mainland China can legally practise their faith only through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a government body that regulates them into a tightly managed and Communist-friendly version of Catholicism. “Under President Xi, Chinese officials have literally exploded churches, arrested entire Christian congregations, forcibly removed images of the Dalai Lama from Tibetan Buddhists’ homes, and detained up to one million Muslims from the minority Uighur ethnic group in ‘re-education’ camps.”
This notwithstanding, it has not stopped Msgr Agostino Cui Taim 69, the “controversial” Catholic bishop of Xuanhua, of being seen as a threat and treated as a rebel by CPC. Sanctioned by the Vatican, he is derided by CPC and viewed as an enemy of the state. Since 2007, he has been constantly harassed and placed under surveillance by the CPC. He was recently released temporarily to spend some time with his ageing sister on the eve of China’s Lunar New Year celebrations, which began on January 24. The celebrations were supposed to end on January 30, but they have been extended for another three days because of the sudden explosion of the coronavirus disease, which has hit the populous Wuhan province.
“In a more disturbing move, last year, the Vatican and the CCP concluded years of negotiations with a deal to merge the government-controlled Catholic organization and the underground Catholic Church in China, while allowing Beijing to maintain a substantial role in approving the appointment of new bishops. Many have viewed this deal as a win for the Chinese government, extending its oversight over all Catholics in the country,” wrote Rhodes.
He adds: “From the days of Confucius until now, Chinese governments have been consistently focused on social order, and the Chinese Communist Party is downright obsessed with maintaining stability. Between a quarter and half of the Chinese population now believes in one religious tradition or another, and the CPC fears any large group of organized and ideologically motivated citizens could challenge the Party.”
“Religion is seen as a weakening influence and an existential threat to the very existence of a new emerging Chinese order that is bent on ruling the world in the coming years,” said a Chinese national living Kenya. “China is in constant fight and struggle with the West, which it believes wants to undermine its stranglehold on world power through the influence of Christianity. On this one, China cannot and will not relent.”
He alluded to the six-month Hong Kong city demonstrations by the unrelenting Hong Kongians and the CPC’s backlash. CPC views these demonstrations, not as a demand for more democratic freedom and space, but as one of the West’s strategies of sneaking in religion into Chinese culture, hence weakening its power. Because of the Hong Kong riots, CPC has tightened its already strict controls for Chinese Christians going to Hong Kong for retreats and seminars.
Although it clear the churches are not in control and are not the originators of the unending strikes, CPC believes the churches have surreptitiously been lending support to the strikers. “From criticizing the Chinese Communist Party and supporting underground churches both before and after the handover, to calling upon the population to defy repressive Chinese-proposed laws in the early years of the ‘one country, two systems’ era, the churches of Hong Kong have actively mobilised opposition to Beijing and created an atmosphere of defiance against the CPC,” said Rhodes. “And so, the current round of protests in Hong Kong reflect the larger ongoing battle between the CPC and the church. So far, the protesters have stuck to singing the eponymous chorus of ‘Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.’”
Currently celebrating their Lunar New Year, whose celebrations commenced last weekend (many of the road construction workers in Kenya are back in China for the fete), CPC is also luxuriating in the fact that it is living in the “New Era”, an epoch of the emergence of Chinese global power. In this New Era, China is definitely reclaiming its past glory and influence from centuries of exploitation and humiliation from the West and is viewing religious infiltration as a real threat. The one area CPC will not compromise on is religion. From 1839 to 1949, China faced a “century of humiliation,” an epoch that China does not like remembering and has vowed is a thing of the past, never to recur again.
The world’s new superpower
Before Lee Kuna Yew, the indomitable Singaporean Prime Minister, died in 2015, he noted that “China under Xi Jinping is driven by an indomitable determination to reclaim past glory. The size of China’s displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance. It’s not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”
Today CPC believes that America is no longer a power to be frightened of; it may have a slight edge in military might for now, but CPC forecasts that by 2049, it will bridge the gap and then accelerate with speed to further widen that gap. It is also aware that it has to deal with the “little problem” of 300 million Chinese people living in poverty. Once it has sorted out those two issues, China will be ready to conquer the world. From then on, China will take its place of pride in global power play by cementing its overall dominance – economically and politically.
This year, China is supposed to achieve an urbanisation level of 60 per cent, and to become an Internet power and a moderately well-off-society. This means that its per capita income will have doubled from the 2010 figures. It also hopes it will have established its global image and refashioned its soft power. Next year, China also hopes to showcase its accomplishments at the 100th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the CPC. CPC views these goals as the “Chinese Dream” or the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.
Before Lee Kuna Yew, the indomitable Singaporean Prime Minister, died in 2015, he noted that “China under Xi Jinping is driven by an indomitable determination to reclaim past glory…It’s not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”
Two important milestone years – 2021 and 2049 – mark China’s hegemonic project. 2021 marks the first of China’s “two centenary goals” that are pegged to the 100th anniversaries of CPC and the People’s Republic of China. At the centre of these patriotic goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the centre of the universe. In the Chinese language, the word for China, zhong guo, means “middle kingdom.” In the lead-up to the centennial celebrations of 2049, CPC has the ambition of galvanising the great China as one unstoppable hegemonic behemoth, devoid of any external influences (read the West) and especially religion. CPC sees religion as a Trojan horse that can never be let into the kingdom.
According to Xinhua, China’s major news agency, by 2049, the centenary year of the People’s Republic of China, the ultimate goal is to build a modern democratic, socialist country that is prosperous, strong, culturally advanced and harmonious. The Chinese powers that be are nostalgic about a world where China was the dominant power and where other states looked upon it in supplication as a superior power. These states came to Beijing as vassals bearing tribute, said Lee Kuan Yew.
As CPC fends off the powerful influence of religion, particularly Christianity from the West, Xi Jinping has promised to make China great again. How? By returning China to the predominance it once enjoyed in Asia before the West interfered, and commanding the respect of other great powers in the council of the world.
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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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