Prefiguring the Future of Democracy11 min read.
The mass protests and the coronavirus crises in the United States and Europe have exposed the fault lines in representative democracies, and appear to confirm the relative superiority of Eastern political capitalism over Western liberal capitalism. They point to a convergence of Western liberal democracy and Eastern political capitalism, the most likely future of the system that will rule the world.
At the end of January 2020, I discovered a paper by Sean Coughlan entitled “Dissatisfaction with democracy within developed countries is at its highest level in 25 years” on the BBC website. This article summarised the findings of a worldwide survey carried out by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Future of Democracy that revealed that the proportion of the global population that was dissatisfied with democracy reached 58 per cent in 2019. “Confidence in democracy has been slipping because democratic institutions have been seen failing to address some of the major crises of our era, from economic crashes to the threat of global warming,” said Dr. Roberto Foa, the main author of the study.
After reading that worrying article, I had to revisit the various definitions of democracy. Political theory offers a distinction among many types of democracy. Some of these distinctions are primarily based on the relationship between government and the governed, such as direct democracies (including participatory democracy, deliberative democracy, etc.) or representative democracies (including parliamentary democracy, presidential democracy, etc.). Other categorisations focus on the role of individual freedoms or the relationship between citizens and the market (such as liberal democracy, social democracy, etc.)
Whichever the flavour of democracy, according to some political scientists, the Western democratic ideal is based on two principles: political participation and political contestation. Political participation means free electoral systems and political contestation means freedom of expression (including speech, press, etc.). If we add to these two principles the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary (as posited by Montesquieu), we get a rather simple definition of what the media and the “common man (and woman)” may understand by democracy – a system that prevails all over Europe and North America. This definition has three main features:
- Free and fair elections and universal suffrage;
- Freedom of expression, including freedom of the press;
- Rule of law applied by an independent judiciary system.
Respect for human rights could be included but we assume that it could be derived from rule of law and freedom of expression.
At the time of Dr. Foa’s briefing, I had just read three stimulating books that shed some light on the question of dissatisfaction with democracy, and which gave me a better understanding of this phenomenon. These books also shed light on the relations between capitalism and democracy and on the geopolitical evolution of our world. Let’s browse through these books.
Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone
Prof. Branko Milanovic, a famous economist known for his work on inequality, explains in his most recent book, Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World (Harvard University Press, 2019), how capitalism became the one and only political system in the world. However, he makes a distinction between liberal capitalism (the pattern found among most OECD countries today) and “political” capitalism (formerly known as state capitalism when describing the Soviet Union). In liberal capitalist systems, inequalities prevail and are growing, particularly due to a lack of “intergenerational income mobility” (leading to a reproduction of the elites, also analysed by Pierre Bourdieu), that is exacerbated by “social separatism”.
Indeed, the Western way of development is essentially characterised by increasingly unacceptable social and territorial inequalities. This view is shared by Paul Collier in his recent masterpiece, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties. According to the British development economist, the biggest rifts tearing apart the fabric of Western societies today are between the highly educated and the less educated, and between cosmopolitan metropolises and declining regions. Thomas Piketty, in his bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century, also demonstrated that the rate of capital return in Western countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, and that this causes increasing wealth inequality.
Inequality is less of a constant in political capitalist systems. According to Milanovic, in these systems, “the population tolerates its lack of voice as long as the elite delivers tangible improvements in living standards, provides tolerable administration of justice and does not allow glaring inequalities”. For Milanovic, China and Vietnam are the paradigmatic examples of political capitalism, but Malaysia, Singapore and some African countries could also fall in the same category.
He, however, notes that the lack of an independent judiciary in these countries could more easily allow corrupt practices and may, therefore, undermine the social compact required by political capitalism. Nonetheless, he views political capitalism (particularly the “regionally decentralised authoritarianism” found in China) as more efficient economically than liberal capitalism, where the population’s decisions could inadvertently result in policies that reduce growth rates, increase pollution and inequalities, reduce life expectancy, etc. Given that public opinion is constantly manipulated (see below), such counterproductive outcomes indeed seem particularly likely in liberal capitalist countries.
Peter Frankopan, The New Silk Roads
In his masterly account of the ongoing shift in global economic power towards Asia, The New Silk Roads: The New Asia and the Remaking of the World Order (Vintage Books, 2019), Prof. Peter Frankopan, a brilliant historian at Oxford University, clearly demonstrates that the countries of the Silk Roads (Asia in short) are those that really matter in the 21st century. For him, it is clear that “we are living in the Asian century already, a time when the movement of GDP from the developed economies of the West to those of the East is taking place on an astonishing scale – and at astonishing speed”.
In fact, Asian countries, primarily China, have become a reference and inspiration for other developing regions and their leaders, particularly in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Turkey, at the confluence of East and West and a NATO member, may constitute the best example of this changing paradigm: Eastern models focused on infrastructure development are progressively replacing Western ideals that have been predominant in the 20th century, particularly since the end of the Cold War.
Inequality is less of a constant in political capitalist systems. According to Milanovic, in these systems, “the population tolerates its lack of voice as long as the elite delivers tangible improvements in living standards, provides tolerable administration of justice and does not allow glaring inequalities”.
A number of books about the rise of “Chindia”, published in the last two decades, share this analysis. However Frankopan raises an important caveat: “Indices measuring press freedom across Asia – from Turkey to Thailand, Iran to India, Pakistan to the Philippines, China to almost all the states of Central Asia – are not just failing to improve; they are in decline, in some cases dramatically. A new world is emerging in Asia, but it is not a free one.” This is consistent with Milanovic’s opus as a confirmation that Asian “political” capitalism is economically more efficient (albeit democratically less attractive) than Western liberal capitalism.
However, it is important to remember that a majority of Western citizens are not satisfied with the functioning and outcomes of their democratic systems. (The Black Lives Matter protests currently taking place in various US cities and around the world are the most recent manifestation of this dissatisfaction.)
So might Europeans and Americans be ready to support an evolution towards political capitalism? As Milanovic observes, “Everyday experience seems to show that many people are willing to trade parts of democratic decision-making for greater income.” This is certainly true in the developing world, particularly in most African countries where economic and social rights (to education, health, housing, etc.) remain largely unfulfilled. The current coronavirus crisis, which has had a devastating impact in Western Europe and North America, also appears to confirm the relative superiority of Eastern political capitalism over Western liberal capitalism; but only time will tell if this superiority will prevail in the long term.
A convergence of liberal and political capitalism might be the most likely future of the system that rules the world. We will consider two possible models for this convergence in our conclusion below – but first and before moving to the third author, we need to open a parenthesis to better understand the forces undermining representative democracy today.
What representative democracy does not deliver
Representative democracy, based on periodical elections, is the dominant political system in Europe and America, but also in Africa. Its flaws and limitations have been analysed by hundreds of scholars and political scientists since the 18th century. Among the most frequently identified flaws, the following could be highlighted:
- Representative democracy puts the elites in positions of power, both in the executive and legislative branches of government. These intellectual, financial and technocratic elites are not bound by the wishes of the electorate. They are supposed to adopt policies in the superior interest of the nation, as they understand it and as it evolves overtime. And usually the so-called interests of the nation are more to do with finance and economics, rather than social issues, such as education and health.
- Because the “power of the people” typically erodes after an election has taken place, elected officials become deceptive and untrustworthy. After they win the vote, they are free to pursue the collective agenda of the elites. Once the representatives are elected, they are no longer accountable. They follow the directives of their parties and forget their specific promises. The only option left to the citizens is not voting for them in the next election.
- A representative democracy depends on majority rule to implement policies and take most decisions. A democratic government, reflecting the “majority” view (usually of the upper middle class), can take action that oppresses a particular minority, the poor, for instance. When the majority is not ethically or morally correct (as in South Africa during the apartheid era), the structure of government can threaten the lives or undermine the interests of people who are not represented or belong to minority groups. In many ways, these groups are left to solve their own problems because they do not have the voting power to overwhelm the majority. Many elections have been won by 51 per cent of the votes, leaving 49 per cent of frustrated voters on the sidelines. In some cases, elections in a single round (a.k.a. “first-past-the-post”) are won by much less than 50 per cent of the population. In other cases (specifically in the USA), the deciding electoral vote (by an electoral college) differs from the popular vote (by the people themselves).
Other flaws have been noted, such as the huge financial cost of electoral processes, increasing abstentions, particularly among disenfranchised classes, or practices to deliberately distort democratic representation (such as gerrymandering i.e. the manipulation of boundaries of electoral constituencies in the USA). However, what appears to matter even more in the current period are two fundamental problems:
- Short-termism is prevalent in Western political systems (with the notable exception of Norway). Most elected officials don’t have a long-term perspective as their main concern is to be re-elected. Therefore, they model their actions on opinion polls and on social media, which provide immediate reactions to each and every event. They have a preference for policies that bring short-term benefits to the electorate (or to themselves) before the next election, rather than unpopular policies with longer-term benefits. Climate change is a typical example. Most leaders know what has to be done in terms of mitigation and adaptation to climate change, but they postpone radical actions that may be unpopular with some important sections of the electorate.
- Insufficiency of political education and lack of critical thinking also remain widespread in Western societies. Electoral democracy can reflect the interests of the people only if voters educate themselves on governing decisions. Someone can turn in a ballot that is a straight-party ticket with no consideration of the issues at stake. In addition, the current web-surfing culture is not really prone to encouraging objective thinking and in-depth understanding of public policy options. Some tech experts already talk of “the digital disruption of democracy”, whereby a non-regulated glut of information results in disinformation while individual attention spans are narrowing faster and faster. Less educated people are more affected by fake news, lies, unrealistic promises, etc., and could be easily influenced by propaganda, for instance on the perceived risks of “migrant invasion”. The election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum are good examples of people voting against their own interests due to poor education and limited understanding of the consequences of their votes. This is where our third recommended book comes in.
Larry Tye, The Father of Spin
Edward L. Bernays (1891-1995) is little-known in academic circles, but he played a key role in developing and applying the concept of “public relations” in many areas during a very long and exceptional career. Born in Austria, he was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and should be considered as a major ideologue of the 20th century.
The Father or Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Publishing (Crown Publishing Group, 1999), the biography of Bernays by Larry Tye, shows how public opinion in Western countries has been successfully manipulated since the 1920s (including in Nazi Germany). As a result, “free and fair” elections are heavily influenced by demagogic parties and charismatic leaders and their teams.
According to biographer Larry Tye, “Bernays used sociology and crowd psychology to rob consumers of their free will, helping his clients predict, then manipulate, the very way their customers thought and acted.”
Because the “power of the people” typically erodes after an election has taken place, elected officials become deceptive and untrustworthy. After they win the vote, they are free to pursue the collective agenda of the elites. Once the representatives are elected, they are no longer accountable.
In his own publications – from Propaganda (1928) to The Engineering of Consent (1955) – the liberal and cynical Bernays described all the techniques available for manipulating public opinion on commercial or political matters. He convinced his many clients (companies as well as political leaders) that persuasion rather than coercion was the best method of getting their way with the masses, which he described as subject to herd instinct. He was very successful and died in Boston as a billionaire at 103 years of age.
In Propaganda, he wrote: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
Since the end of the Second World War, the ideas, techniques and methods advocated and tested by Bernays have flourished in Western countries, particularly in advertising, but also in the political field. Concentration of media ownership has led to major distortions in democratic processes. Indeed, the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and provides a narrow spectrum of elite opinions. Meanwhile, the eruption of alternative news sources available online and on social media has come as a laudable reaction to media concentration, but has also provided additional tools for the manipulation of public opinion by battalions of spin doctors. As a result, while elections are formally free, they are far from being fair due to “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the opinions of the masses”.
The future of democracy
We see two possible models for the future of democracy – two different hybrids of Milanovic’s liberal capitalism and political capitalism. The first model is ominous, the second is inspiring.
Currently, dissatisfaction with Western representative democracy has brought to the fore a number of populist movements or parties that are changing the political landscape because they tend to tap into emotion rather than rational thinking. These movements and parties are particularly attractive to less educated citizens. These far-right populist parties are promoting an “illiberal democracy” based on strong autocratic men in power, economic protectionism, a controlled judiciary and hostility to migrants and foreigners. Using the categories defined by Milanovic, it can be argued that this populist model borrows some features from political capitalism in order to transform the existing liberal capitalism. In this perspective, the Russian Federation may be seen as a prototype for the future of Western democracies.
Another and opposite model could be to insert some components of Western liberal democracy into the more economically efficient Eastern political capitalism. Basically, the rule of law and freedom of expression would go hand-in-hand with state-controlled economic development, regulated markets, reduced income and spatial disparities and long-term socio-economic strategies. Electoral processes would be minimised and counter-balanced by more participatory local democracy. Already local authorities play an ever-increasing role in national politics, and in many respects they are more effective than nation-states. While they are not exempt from clientelism, local governments are increasingly willing to adopt participatory approaches (as notably demonstrated in several Latin American countries).
Concentration of media ownership has led to major distortions in democratic processes. Indeed, the corporate media limits the availability of contesting views and provides a narrow spectrum of elite opinions.
In this ideal world, political elites would be selected on objective criteria; then the best administrators, incorruptible and accountable, would rise and be periodically evaluated by their peers and by local leaders (mayors, governors, etc.). They could be replaced following media campaigns and social mobilisation, which have become a new and important mode of political expression all over the world.
From Santiago to Algiers, Madrid to Baghdad, New Delhi to Sydney, Stockholm to Hong Kong, New York to Caracas, Paris to Beirut, Jakarta to Khartoum, an innovative form of democracy based on mass and recurrent demonstrations has been trying to emerge in recent years.
So far these popular protests have not achieved much in terms of institutional outcomes. However, they reflect the dissatisfaction and determination of millions of people, the youth in particular, and will certainly influence the future of democracy and the evolution of capitalism. These social movements will, hopefully, ensure that of the two possible futures for democracy, the second model – a combination of Western liberal democracy and Eastern political capitalism – prevails in the long run.
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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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