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The Never-Ending Curfews and State-Sanctioned Violence in Northern Kenya

13 min read.

No place in Kenya has been more affected by brutal curfews, lockdowns, and policing of bodies than northern Kenya. While state-sanctioned violence has been a central feature of life in northern Kenya for over a century, egregious human rights violations have not found closure, even after the release of the TJRC’s report and recommendations.



The Never-Ending Curfews and State-Sanctioned Violence in Northern Kenya
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States have responded to the outbreak of COVID-19 with a raft of measures depending on their capacities and the opinions of their functionaries. Some countries have also imitated or “adopted” the containment measures rolled out by their counterparts elsewhere.

By and large, the common denominator of these responses has been curtailment of freedom of movement through lockdowns and curfews. Curfews are normally put in place to limit freedom of movement for security reasons. However, in the context of a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic, they are designed to contain the movement of persons and that of pathogens among them.

In the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya has put in place dawn-to-dusk curfews to contain the spread of the virus. (A recent executive directive has changed the hours to from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.) Unfortunately, the positive intentions of the curfew notwithstanding, there have been widely reported cases of police brutality in its “enforcement”.

While on the surface the idea of curfews sounds benign and even necessary, the attendant state violence that has been witnessed in different parts of the country is always met with public resentment. For the people of Northern Kenya, in particular, it stirs up painful historical and recent memories of military and police abuses in the region.

It is worth noting that the foundation of Kenya was inextricably linked to epidemics and later some form of curfews (kafio in local parlance). Historically, colonialism imposed itself in the region in the aftermath of the rinderpest epidemics between the 1890 and 1891 that devastated livestock (the mainstay of pastoralism) and wildlife across much of Africa.

With the advent of colonialism, the region that came to be identified as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) constituted around half of Kenya’s land mass. This mainly arid area populated by nomadic pastoralists was treated as a buffer to the more “productive” highlands of central Kenya, and was consequently excluded from any form of “development”. The arrival of independence did little to peel back this colonial exclusionary practice; instead, it perfected the marginalisation of the region.

Colonialism as violence

In the pastoralists’ world, mobility is fundamental to economic, political, and ritual reality.  Life, and indeed survival, are predicated on movement across the vast landscape, either in search of pasture and water for livestock or simply to perform rituals in a sacred place at appointed times of the year. This movement is not haphazard as some might assume, but is underpinned by a sophisticated understanding and use of space. Movement is a strategic way to maximize the use of the available resources and to conserve the environment at the same time. Imposing other models that curtail movement in the way the modern states do is therefore profoundly disruptive to pastoralism.

With the advent of colonialism, the region that came to be identified as the Northern Frontier District (NFD) constituted around half of Kenya’s land mass. This mainly arid area populated by nomadic pastoralists was treated as a buffer to the more “productive” highlands of central Kenya, and was consequently excluded from any form of “development”.

The establishment of the colonial arrangement of fixed national territories and internally demarcated “Tribal Grazing Areas” fundamentally restricted the mobility of herders and pastoralist communities. When not in conservation rhetoric, this restriction of movement was often framed as a security issue where communities were to be “protected” from raids by other groups. communities from raids by other groups This framework greatly destabilised the pastoralists’ spatial organisation of lives and livelihoods, forcing them to make do with whatever resources that were included in “their” territories.

Closure, lockdown and law

This territorialisation of ethnic groups was affected through a set of draconian laws aimed at keeping people “in place”.  Between 1902 and 1949, pieces of legislation were crafted to undergird partitioning of space and ultimately punish the “offenders”. The Outlying District Ordinance of 1926 and the Special Districts (Administration) Ordinance of 1934 are illustrative of this legal regime.

The Outlying District Ordinance declared the whole of the NFD a “Closed District” and prohibited persons from entering or leaving it without the permission of the Provincial Commissioner (PC). Consequently, movement was strictly controlled and depended on the issuance of a limited number of biannual passes.

In 1934, the PC was given exclusive powers under the Special Districts (Administration) Ordinance to grant permission to residents to graze their livestock only in particular areas – a move that tied previously mobile nomadic pastoralists to specifically designated geographical spaces. By pegging communities to particular “grazing areas” and consolidating their identity along grazing lines, “tribalism” was thus greatly promoted during this period.

Furthermore, there was a general apartheid-style division of space not only through Tribal Grazing Areas to distinguish who got to use which pasture areas and wells, but also who got to live where. There was an established separation of black and white areas: the townships were for white colonial administrators and a few Arab and Indian traders, and the reserves (risaaf in local parlance) were for the various indigenous ethnic groups. Those who showed “tribal indiscipline” and who trespassed into “closed areas” or stayed in the township past certain designated hours were slapped with heavy fines.

In 1934, the PC was given exclusive powers under the Special Districts (Administration) Ordinance to grant permission to residents to graze their livestock only in particular areas – a move that tied previously mobile nomadic pastoralists to specifically designated geographical spaces.

The north was also closed off from formal education, with only a handful of government primary schools and no secondary schools in most of the districts. It took the Catholic Church (which came in in the second half of the twentieth century) to transform the health and education sectors by building dispensaries, hospitals, and schools in the region. Prior to that, the Catholic Church had been refused entry to carry out any proselytisation or development work in the region.

War metaphors

War metaphors have recently been invoked in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic.  The fight against the virus itself has been framed as a war. More importantly, past wars have also been invoked to try to make sense of the restrictions around movement and to contemplate the envisaged scale of devastation.  The argument is often framed around World War II. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel’s much praised speech in the early days of the pandemic is an example of this war rhetoric .

Kenya’s former Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, also recently invoked war  when he observed, “Today, the whole world stands where Europe was in 1945.” He subsequently went on to urge the United States and Europe “not to abandon their roles” to help other parts of the world just like the United States “saved” Europe in the aftermath of WWII.

It might be worth considering the lingering effects of such global events and many more “small” wars on hitherto small and obscure parts of the globe like the NFD. No place in Kenya has arguably faced the consequences of war more than the northern region. While World War II did not directly affect many parts of Kenya, Kenya was fertile ground for the recruitment of soldiers (askaris) by the British.

What is often forgotten is that the NFD was the scene of military combat. Marsabit was, in fact, a frontier in the Italo- Abyssinian war and World War II. The administrative station in the township, about 300 miles from the Kenya-Ethiopia border, was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) as one of the main bases for launching attacks on the frontier.

As the situation grew volatile, the colonial administrators were evacuated from the town to central Kenya and the few traders in the township, mainly Somalis belonging to the Isaak and Herti clans, also fled to other parts.  The local “native population” was subsequently evacuated from the town to a plain known as Diid Wachu as a measure against aerial raids. The local airstrip was subsequently bombed by the Italian forces but fortunately there were no casualties.  All this is recounted within living memory of older residents of the region as “gaaf taliana” – the time of the Italians.

Post-WWII exclusion 

The State of Emergency in the early 1950s in response to the Mau Mau insurgency in central Kenya exacerbated the movement restrictions already in place in northern Kenya. Within a few days of the declaration of the State of Emergency, the first political detainees – Jesse Kariuki and Ex-senior Chief Mbiu Koinange – arrived in Marsabit.  By 1952, three of the “Kapenguria Six” – Richard Achieng Oneko, Fredrik Kubai and Bildad Kagia – were detained in Marsabit and attended the court sessions in Kapenguria. According to colonial reports at the Kenya National Archives, by the end of 1952, there were a total of ten political detainees in Marsabit.

That the political detainees were shuttled off to the north during the emergency was underpinned by this warped and prejudiced colonial view that the north is a punishing place.

The words of one former colonial administrator, Charles Chevenix Trench, best characterise this view:

“The north was another world. Most of the country is scrub-desert, every tree and bush bristling with hooked ‘wait-a-bit’ thorns, which tears at flesh and clothes. One can seldom see more than three hundred yards, often much less. There was no permanent water except for the Uaso Nyiro, Tana and Juba rivers, the Lorian swamp, and a few clusters of deep wells. It was a country in which small forces were ambushed and cut up, large forces suffered cruelly from hunger and thirst, and both lost their way.” (1993:48)

Exiling the detainees to northern Kenya essentially meant consigning them to an “open prison”, in the colonial mental cartography.

The politics of independence  

In the background of negotiations for Kenya’s independence there was the lingering question of the fate of the Northern Frontier District (NFD): Should the region be part of Kenya or Somalia? This question generated a fierce debate. Kenya wanted the NFD to be part of Kenya, and Somalia wanted the region to form part of Greater Somalia that would include the Ethiopian Ogaden, British Somaliland, the former Italian Somaliland, and Djibouti. This was given a further impetus in 1960 when British Somaliland and Italian Somalia joined to form the independent Republic of Somalia.

To resolve the issue, in typical British fashion, the Colonial Secretary, Regiland Maulding, formed the Regional Boundaries Commission in 1962. The same year, the committee recommended that the predominantly Somali-inhabited areas should remain as part of Kenya as the North Eastern Province. This was despite the fact that a referendum had shown that most of the inhabitants were in favour of joining Somalia. To solicit for their opinion in a plebiscite and not honouring the community’s response was a recipe for fomenting resentment.

Subsequently, the region boycotted the 1963 elections to select the government that would take over from the British after independence on 12 December.  With the backing of the regime in Mogadishu, the region started an armed insurgency to secede from Kenya. The newly independent Kenyan government responded by declaring a State of Emergency in northern Kenya on 28 December 1963, only two weeks after independence.  This would later precipitate the Shifta War between 1963 and 1968.

The so-called Shifta War

The trigger for the declaration of the State of Emergency was the assassination of the first African District Commissioner, Mr. Daudi Dabasso Wabera, and the Senior Chief, Haji Galma Dido. As part of the State of Emergency, the government issued a series of regulations and administrative edicts: all the residents of the NFD were required to register and carry identity papers. Curfew orders, movement restrictions, and livestock seizures (as a form of collective punishment) were imposed to curtail Shifta activity.

Further, the security forces could arrest and detain any person without a warrant for 28 days.  This further cemented securitisation of the relationship between the people of the region and the Kenyan state and automatically transferred the burden of proof of whether the people of Northern Kenya were Shiftas.

To inflict further misery on the people, in 1966 the government introduced a forced villagisation programme for residents of NFD. Villagisation was predicated on the classic counterinsurgency principle that the centre of gravity in an insurgency rests with the population, and once the insurgents are starved of the population’s support, food and logistics, they will eventually be uprooted.

This meant a scorched-earth policy of collective punishment of the population that included torture, extrajudicial executions, especially of men, and destruction of the livestock economy. (Some draw a direct link between the region’s current poverty and the destruction of the livestock economy by the security agencies during this period.)

Regarding villagisation in the NFD during the Shifta period, G.G Kariuki, the then Minister for Internal Security, told Parliament, “We do not want to be told that there are loyal Somalis, let loyal Somalis come out and show us their loyalty. Let them be put in a camp where we can scrutinise them and know who [amongst them] are good.” 

To inflict further misery on the people, in 1966 the government introduced a forced villagisation programme for residents of NFD. Villagisation was predicated on the classic counterinsurgency principle that the centre of gravity in an insurgency rests with the population, and once the insurgents are starved of the population’s support, food and logistics, they will eventually be uprooted.

Central to villagisation (in addition to the cessation of free movement of people and livestock) was an attempt to turn the people of northern Kenya away from pastoralism towards settled agriculture. At the heart of this mindset is the false dichotomy that pastoralism is bad and settler agriculture is good. This was affirmed by the first post-independence development policy, Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965, on African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya.

While the 1952 State of Emergency declared by Governor Everlyn Baring and the Mau Mau rebellion tend to get plenty of attention within Kenya’s historiography, the same cannot be said of the Shifta War, despite the uncanny resemblance and parallels of the colonial British policies and modus operandi and the way the Kenyan government dealt with the Shifta insurgency.

Parallels between Mau Mau and Shifta

The post-independence administrators, many whom had served in the British colonial administration, saw a parallel between the Mau Mau and the Shifta. For them, the only way to deal with an insurgency was to use the colonial playbook on the Mau Mau. The Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) stated, “This villagisation programme was eerily reminiscent of the detention camps created during the colonial period.”

The government not only committed the crime but went further and attempted to conceal it. According to the TJRC, “The Kenyan government made a deliberate and concerted effort to cover up abuses committed in connection with the conflict, and enacted the Indemnity Act in order to protect government officials for accountability for wrongful acts committed in the conflict.”

In the local history, this period is collectively memorialised as Gaaf D’aaba – When Time Stopped i.e. when the normal rhythm of nomadic movement was stopped, and people and animals were detained in conditions similar to concentration camps. (The State of Emergency in NFD was only lifted in 1991, 23 years later.)

To demonstrate the premeditated nature of this crime, individuals involved in this operation were immune from prosecution by the passage of the Indemnity Act Cap. 44. This Act gave provincial administrators and security officers immunity from prosecution for anything they did in northern Kenya.

In the local history, this period is collectively memorialised as Gaaf D’aaba – When Time Stopped i.e. when the normal rhythm of nomadic movement was stopped, and people and animals were detained in conditions similar to concentration camps.

This was not the last time the people of northern Kenya had to contend with the state’s brutality anchored in curfew.  Indeed, the hegemonic legal and documentary practices that were used for the control of movement have been salient in much of northern Kenya’s experience under both the colonial and independent administration. The handing over of advisories from one colonial administrator to another had it that: “The great thing about the N.F.D. is that almost everything is illegal, unless it is specifically authorised in writing.”

It might as well have been a piece of advice the Kenyan post-independent state got from its colonial counterpart as the passbook introduced during the colonial period (abandoned in other parts at independence) continued to be a requirement in the NFD as late as the 1980s, more than two decades after independence.

More assault

For four days in February 1984, Wajir County, then a district, was turned into a war zone when members of the Kenya Army burst into homes, raping women, destroying property, and seizing the men. Men from the Degodia clan, and anyone caught up in the search, were ferried to the Wagalla airstrip. Once they arrived at the airstrip, they were undressed and forced to lie on the scorching ground. Those who resisted were shot on the spot. They were kept there without food or water, baking in the hot sun.

To emphasise the gravity of the crime, the TJRC stated that the detention, torture and killing of male members of the Degodia clan at the airstrip, and the rapes, killing of livestock and burning of homes in the villages “was a systematic attack against a civilian population and thus qualifies as a crime against humanity”. Like other previous operations, the Kenya Army also targeted the economic backbone of the community, namely, pastoralism. The Kenya Army killed livestock indiscriminately.

To date, there is no accurate official number of people killed during what is now known as the Wagalla Massacre. The government’s claim of only 57 deaths is preposterous considering that hardly any household was spared during that “operation” by the Kenya Army. In fact, the government frustrated the TJRC by denying them access to the official record of the operation. The TJRC, in its 2013 report, refuted the official figure by stating: “The official death toll for the Wagalla operation has been given as 57. While it is clear that the death toll was greater…the government has never officially revised the figure of 57.” The TJRC concluded that the scale of the massacre ranged from between 1,000 and 5,000 deaths, depending on the source.

To date, there is no accurate official number of people killed during what is now known as the Wagalla Massacre. The government’s claim of only 57 deaths is preposterous considering that hardly any household was spared during that “operation” by the Kenya Army.

The Kenyan state was so keen so suppress any information about the massacre that it declared Dr Annalena Tonelli, an Italian health activist who worked in Wajir, and who had documented the massacre, persona non grata. Were it not for the brave efforts of this woman who compiled a report and handed it over to an American diplomat, Barbara Lefkow, few would have known about the scale of the atrocities committed by the state at the Wagalla airstrip.

The “War on Terror”

When confronted with a policy challenge, especially in northern Kenya, the default setting of the Kenyan state is to use the security agencies with an express permission to cause maximum damage. This approach is ingrained in the national DNA. It is not a bug, but rather a feature of the Kenyan state.

Little wonder then, when Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011, there was a predictable blowback by Al Shabaab inside Kenya. Kenyan security agencies responded to this threat by resorting to the tried-and-tested rule book of imposing curfews and carrying out extrajudicial executions and disappearances of Al Shabaab suspects. This despite the Prevention of Terrorism Act and many other legislations that could have been used to counter terrorism.

On 2 April 2014, following a spate of attacks by Al Shabaab, including the dramatic attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in September 2013, Kenya launched Operation Usalama Watch. The logic of the operation was to smoke out homegrown Al Shabaab and their sympathisers living in the Nairobi neighbourhood of Eastleigh and its surrounding areas, which is dominated by ethnic Somalis.

During the operation, more than 4,000 people, a large proportion of whom were Somali refugees, were arrested and detained at the Kasarani Stadium with utter disregard for the rule of law. While indisputably facing security threats emanating from Somalia, especially from Al Shabaab, the rounding up all ethnic Somalis, including children, was flagrant racial profiling akin to collective punishment of the entire community for the crimes of a few.

There is a direct line linking the classifications of Somalis as Shiftas and now terrorists. Like previous massacres and egregious violations, predictably, no one was held accountable for this, despite the eerie similarity to what the British colonial administrators did to suspected Mau Mau fighters.

Historical memory 

Among other sentiments, curfews related to COVID-19 have elicited historical memories of state-sanctioned violence and curfews in the country. Curfews in Nairobi and Nanyuki following the 1982 attempted coup come to mind.

However, no place in the country has been more affected by state-sanctioned brutal curfews, lockdowns, and policing of bodies than northern Kenya. In fact, there are generations of northern Kenyans who have known nothing else. As an old man from Isiolo quipped in a narration to one of the authors, “Ya naaf nuu taat”. They (curfews and police brutality) have become (part of) our bodies – a statement that is emblematic of the palpable resignation that many northerners feel regarding restrictions of movement forced upon them by an all-too powerful and hostile state.

While closure, containment and curfews – and the attendant state violence – have been a central feature of life in northern Kenya for over a century, these egregious violations have not found closure, even after the release of the TJRC report and recommendations on ways to rectify historical injustices.

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Hassan Kochore, a student of African history, anthropology and politics, is currently pursuing a PhD at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. Abdullahi Halakhe is a Horn of Africa analyst.


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.



Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
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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.

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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.



Breaking the Chains of Indifference
Photo by Musnany on Unsplash.
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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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Mukami Kimathi and the Scramble to Own Mau Mau Memory

The struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation resurfaces with the burial of Mukami Kimathi.



Mukami Kimathi and the Scramble to Own Mau Mau Memory
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May the scramble for memorialisation commence. The body of Dedan Kimathi’s widow was barely in the ground before the wannabe Mau Maus began using her to score cheap political points. The line between “rebel” and “loyalist” is blurred once again, as it was during and after the liberation struggle. Just as hotly contested is the struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation. Who owns Kimathi? Who owns Mukami? The usual suspects, most of whom had nothing to do with Mau Mau, came running to stake their claim.

Kenyan politicians love a good death—captive audience, media spotlight, the chance to dress up, and a feast to follow. Predictably, they made a meal out of this one.

Attempts to control the narrative kicked off at the burial, and in tributes reported in the media. Raila Odinga and William Ruto went head to head, the president declaring: “Mama Mukami Kimathi courageously withstood the brutality of colonial oppression, proudly wore the scars of battle, and bore the terrible losses of war with admirable fortitude.” Whether she actually took part in physical combat, as this implies, is neither here nor there.

Fans of Raila took to Twitter to claim that he had taken better care of Mukami and her family than his political opponents had. “Baba used to look out for the late Field Marshall Mukami Kimathi. “Hao wengine ambao wanajiita [those others who call themselves] ‘sons of Mau Mau’ never met Mukami until she passed away.” Other tweeps spoke of a “showdown” between former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga and Vice President Rigathi Gachagua at the burial. “Who is the true son of Mau Mau between Maina Njenga and Riggy G?”. One young woman scathingly noted: “There is nothing Mau Mauish about Mukami Kimathi ‘s burial. That MC was the worst very sad. Watoto wa home guards have hijacked the burial.”

This story isn’t really about Mukami as a person or as an activist. It doesn’t need to be. It discusses what has been projected onto her, and will continue to be projected onto her and Kimathi, in the slippery process of memorialising Mau Mau (more properly, the Land and Freedom Army; its members never called it Mau Mau). It also draws some parallels between Mukami and Winnie Mandela.

As Julie MacArthur wrote in the introduction to her edited volume Dedan Kimathi on Trial, “Kimathi’s legacy was never a simple exemplar of patriotic martyrdom, and his place in the postcolonial imagination reflected the complicated legacy of the Mau Mau rebellion: at times suppressed or downplayed, at others lauded and filled with mythic importance, but always contested.” This landmark 2017 book ran five “critical essays” by scholars—alongside a transcript of Kimathi’s trial—from primary documents which MacArthur had discovered. It was an exciting find of archival papers everyone had “long thought lost, hidden or destroyed”. She described how, when Nelson Mandela visited Kenya for the first time, in July 1990, he was surprised to find that Eloise Mukami (as MacArthur calls her) had not been invited to the festivities, and “lamented” her absence. He also queried the absence of a proper grave for Kimathi, and said he would have liked to have paid his respects there, as one freedom fighter to another. The face of then President Moi, as he listened to this homage, was reportedly stony. At that time, Kimathi was not considered the right kind of hero. Mandela had publicly embarrassed him.

Winnie and Mukami

It is fitting that we refer to Mandela here, since there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Winnie and Mukami. Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right. Both led underground networks, of ANC activists in Winnie’s case, and (if reports are correct) of Mau Mau fighters and supporters in Mukami’s case. The two couples both spent more time apart than they did together, exchanging precious letters. “He talked with letters,” Mukami told interviewer Wambui Kamiru; they used a secret code. The Mandelas, too, relied on letters, albeit heavily censored ones. It can also be argued that Winnie suffered more on the outside, during her husband’s 27-year incarceration, than he did on the inside. She was constantly hounded, held under house arrest, vilified and spied upon. In May 1969 she was arrested and jailed for 491 days, 400 of them in solitary confinement.  In his new biography Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage Jonny Steinberg writes that by the mid-1960s “the security police expended astonishing energy to render her life unlivable”. This included hounding those close to her; for example, her brother Msuthu was arrested and jailed for vagrancy. Then, when it became known that Winnie had taken other lovers, even before Nelson was imprisoned on Robben Island, she was vilified as a cheating wife. A man in the same circumstances would have escaped blame. If anything, it would have enhanced his reputation. (Kimathi reportedly had many lovers in the forest, while banning his fighters from cohabitation outside marriage.)

Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right.

To my knowledge Mukami was never accused of being unfaithful (is that even possible for a widow?) but some of this also applies to her. She suffered for decades after Dedan was executed, living in poverty and struggling to bring up four children alone (some reports say ten). Wambui Kamiru (widow of the late Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore) refers to “the cost she paid for freedom” in her unpublished Master’s thesis “Memorialising the Kimathi Family”, based largely on informal interviews with Mukami at her home in South Kinangop. (My thanks to Wambui for sharing a copy of this long ago.) Mukami’s biographer, Wairimu Nderitu, has also described her struggles and incarceration, ultimately in Kamiti Prison.

However, accounts of Mukami’s time in the forest do not add up. While some writers including Nderitu claim that she spent years in the forest, led a platoon and was quarter-master of a fighters’ camp, other accounts contradict this. Writes Kamiru: “Although Mukami had initially followed Kimathi into the forest in 1952, when their eldest son Waciuri became a toddler, Kimathi asked her to leave the forest so that the child and the family to come would be raised outside of war.” Which is it? In the weeks and months to come, we can expect more “active forest fighter” tributes to Mukami. Her story is already becoming embellished.

Why Mau Mau memorialisation is still contested

It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat this, 60 years after independence. Mau Mau was not a unifying movement. It remains an open wound on Kenya’s body politic. Its sheer ambiguity makes it so, and no single figure was more ambiguous than Kimathi. Kenyan scholar Simon Gikandi, writing in the MacArthur collection of essays cited earlier, calls him “neither the demonic figure of colonial discourse, nor the heroic subject of radical nationalism, but what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously called a ‘floating signifier’, a term intended ‘to represent an undetermined quantity of signification’, but is in ‘itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning’. Kimathi is a signifier with a value, but what this value represents is variable and open to multiple interpretations”. In other words, anyone can project onto him whatever they wish. He represents whatever they want him to. Now people will do the same, to a much lesser extent, with Mukami.

Another problem is this. Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists. Many may have moved up and down a spectrum that had Mau Mau and loyalists at each extreme, ducking and diving when necessary. Naturally, many of their descendants don’t want to be reminded of this; it’s all too painful. Historian Daniel Branch has described the complex blurring of allegiances in Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. He notes, for example: “In late 1952 and through much of 1953, Home Guards repeatedly assisted Mau Mau units”. As in any civil conflict (and yes this became one, despite what the naysayers claim), some people play a double game in order to survive. They may also, as Branch describes, join a particular side not for ideological reasons but in order to settle private scores. As he put it, “The violence of the conflict became privatised as individuals assumed the labels of Mau Mau or loyalist to pursue rivals who had declared for the other group.”

Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists.

Why do I refer to naysayers? Because the struggle within a struggle (including that between Kimathi and his own fighters, some of whom turned against him) is dismissed by some as yet another colonial invention. All this messy complexity is now brushed aside, in an effort to present a seamless metanarrative of freedom struggle—not least by the state.

Moreover, the entire population of “peasants” did not rise up and join Mau Mau, despite Ngugi’s best attempts to claim that they did. (Calling them peasants is a tad derogatory, isn’t it?  Pastoralists, for one, are not peasants, but they too revolted against the colonial state at various times. And Kimathi had been a teacher, not a peasant.) If some readers are harrumphing as they read this, and want to accuse me of heresy, that proves my point: Mau Mau is still utterly divisive, but critique is healthy and necessary, in this or any other discussion of the past. The critical essays in MacArthur’s volume, written by eminent Kenyan and British scholars with a Foreword by Ngugi and Micere Githae Mugo, attest to that. Many other Kenyan scholars have previously written critically about Mau Mau, notably E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Bethwell Ogot and others in Mau Mau and Nationhood. Ogot has argued that the narrow focus on Mau Mau as the sole actors in the independence struggle obscures the role that others (such as trade unionists, intellectuals) played in achieving the goal of uhuru. He wrote of how “the heroes and heroines are identified with the forest fighters in the 1950s, and the rest of our freedom fighters are supposed to suffer a second death like Fanon”. The anticolonial movement, he argues, was much larger than that. Most scholars would agree: the uncomfortable fact is that Mau Mau failed militarily, and may even have delayed independence.

Let’s take the contradictions and anomalies that swirl around Jomo Kenyatta. He is hailed as the founding “father of the nation”, while Mau Mau is simultaneously seen as the foundation story. Yet there is no evidence that Jomo was ever in Mau Mau. How can these two opposites be reconciled? Though he swung between denouncing Mau Mau and occasionally embracing it, Jomo declared it to be “a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again” (speech at Githunguri, September 1962, just after he was released from detention). Scholar Marshall Clough has said of this: “Kenyatta’s use of criminal analogies and disease metaphors directly recalled the British discourse on Mau Mau, and suggested not only a political repudiation of the movement but a certain degree of personal distaste.” (I quote from his chapter in Mau Mau and Nationhood.)  As I have previously written in the MacArthur volume, “On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.” Those purposes included the urgent need to unify a divided post-conflict nation. They included the need to obscure his own role (or lack of it) in the freedom struggle, at least that part of it involving actual physical combat. He also wanted to fend off what he saw as veterans’ unrealistic demands for compensation, free land and jobs, and possibly to avoid the expense of erecting memorials to liberation heroes. That only started once Mwai Kibaki came to power and embarked on a mausoleum-building spree.

Let me quote from the horse’s mouth. My late informant Paul Thuku Njembui was a war veteran with the best of credentials—he claimed to have sheltered Kimathi in his home for a while. He spent seven years in British detention camps, where he learned some English. In conversation with me (we spent many hours talking at his home in Karima Forest near Nyeri; funnily enough Wambui Kamiru was briefly my research assistant), he was adamant that Jomo was never in Mau Mau. “Kenyatta was not a Mau Mau,” he told me. “Who could have become the first president of Kenya? Is it Kenyatta or Kimathi? Kimathi continued fighting for freedom up to the end of his life, but Kenyatta surrendered, he betrayed his people … Mau Mau fought for land and freedom, but it is the children of the loyalists who got the land. The truth only comes from us [veterans], other sources may not have been accurate.”

“On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.”

It is a refrain often heard from veterans, both living and dead. It belies the Jomo-led official mantra “We all fought for freedom”; that is, all communities, not just Gikuyu and the few members of other ethnic groups who joined Mau Mau. Thuku also believed that Kenyatta told the British to execute Kimathi: “He was there to say [to the British]: ‘Kill Kimathi! Let him die!’ Because he knew that he would [otherwise] have no chance of being president.”

That was obviously a myth, but it served a purpose in Thuku’s mind: it made sense of the past. His past. Myth forms an important part of what scholars call regimes of memory, which simultaneously feature “forgetting”, myth, occlusion, absences, contradictions, and often a surfeit of memory. Memory can be both individual and collective. It is vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, as French historian Pierre Nora famously wrote, particularly where the construction and reconstruction of nationhood and national history are concerned. His description of memory as “susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” applies to Mau Mau memory, as Clough has previously pointed out. Equally, it also applies to its memorialisation, which has taken on a life of its own.

This is where it gets doubly tricky: when the government of the day uses select narratives to construct the official “story of the nation”. Nowhere is the struggle to produce a coherent story of Kenya, most particularly the story of Mau Mau, more apparent than in the permanent history exhibition at Nairobi National Museum, which opened in 2010. (See my chapter on “The Production and Transmission of National History” in Annie E. Coombes, Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene, Managing Heritage, Making Peace. History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya.) In the “Armed Struggle” room, Kenyatta’s role in the fight for independence is fudged. When I last visited some years ago, I asked a guide what connection, if any, there was between Kenyatta and Mau Mau, since this was not at all clear from the display. “He led Mau Mau but he pretended that he did not” came the reply. Oddly, his photograph was not included in a display showing three of the Kapenguria Six, who were jailed with Kenyatta. The caption read: “The militant leaders of the Mau Mau movement” rather than members of the militant wing of the Kenya African Union (KAU). Other questionable features of the exhibition included displays presenting “collaborators” and “resisters” as binary opposites, and a video showing interviews with Mau Mau veterans, who all happened to be Gikuyu—thereby contradicting the line that Mau Mau was multi-ethnic. These displays may have changed since I was there.

And so we have returned, with the burial of Mukami, to the idea that “We all fought for freedom”. This is not said in so many words, but it is implied, and is being relayed once again as a unifying message from a new president to a divided nation.

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