Racism Towards Africans Is Alive and Well in China9 min read.
The recent news of evictions and mistreatment of African students in China during the COVID-19 pandemic is rooted in a history of violence and discrimination.
The recent wave of evictions and forced detentions of Africans living in China, especially in the southern city of Guangzhou, has shocked most people, especially Africans. While the reporting and analysis of the ongoing situation have been quite widespread, and have even forced a response from the Chinese government, most observers have generally not connected this episode to previous, and even uglier, episodes of anti-black African action in China. In fact, there is a long history of these kinds of violence and discrimination against Africans in China, which are linked to how Africans are viewed there. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in three West African countries, Africans in China were subjected to forced quarantine episodes too, but they did not capture the popular imagination the way similar episodes of mistreatment do now.
Chinese perceptions of Africans draw from two separate threads: that Africans are dangerous, disease-carrying individuals, and also a tolerated minority subject to the whims of state violence.
It is worth revisiting this long history.
African students have been coming to China since 1960, and violent tensions between those students and the Chinese have been occurring since 1962, when a Zanzibari was beaten by hotel attendants. Still, it would not be until 1979 in the Shanghai Textile Engineering Institute when a pattern of anti-African violence was established by Chinese students, which “culminated in the [Nanjing] 1988-89 racial turmoil.” The Shanghai violence began on July 3, when Chinese students complained about the African students’ loud music and confronted them. A brawl ensued, and eventually a mob of Chinese students attacked the African students with makeshift weapons, following rumors Africans had raped Chinese women. The police response was insufficient to protect the Africans. According to scholar Barry Sautman, “Sixteen foreign students were hospitalized, but as many as 50 foreigners and 24 Chinese may have been injured.” A similar clash took place in Tianjin in 1986, this time over the mostly male African students’ relations with Chinese women. They were also reproached for playing loud music. The African students, after being detained by the police, needed protection from Chinese student groups raiding the foreign students’ dormitories. It should be noted that African diplomats had no success in trying to work with the Chinese authorities to better protect their citizens in China; some ambassadors suggested their governments send fewer students to China.
Nanjing universities in particular seemed to have problems dealing with African students, and their branch of the African Students Union sent a letter to the authorities protesting their treatment a year before the 1979 Shanghai violence, with no apparent change in policy. In 1980, according to Michael J. Sullivan and Philip Snow, Chinese students put up posters denouncing their government for welcoming African visitors.
There were multiple racially motivated attacks against African students between 1985 and 1986, and the Chinese police would arrive but not protect the students. In 1988, officials in Hehai University built a wall around the foreign students hall, ostensibly to protect against theft, but actually to ensure that African students did not bring Chinese women to their rooms. When the African students knocked down the wall, the university officials informed them that funds from their stipend would be docked in order to pay for the damages, and the students staged demonstrations. It was during this tumult that the university decided on December 24, the day of the Christmas Eve dance, that all foreign students must register their guests at the university gate. Two African students, from Benin and Liberia, wanted to bring two Chinese girls with them to the dance, and went to the main gate at Hehai. After that, what actually happened is bitterly disputed, as illustrated by two passages in Michael Sullivan’s article:
[T]he entrance guard asked the two girls to register, the two African students and refused to let them do so. At that point, several other African students came over and started a quarrel with the entrance guard. In the ensuing brawl, eleven staff members were injured, one of them seriously, including a university vice-president who had one of his ribs broken when he tried to persuade the combatants to stop fighting.
The African students … claim that the security guard permitted them and their guests to enter the campus after he saw the women’s Hong Kong passports. When the Benin student later returned to the front gate to wait for another Chinese friend, a group of heckling Chinese students attacked him, chanting “Black Devil, you must respect the laws of China!” and “What do you want, Black Devil?” The African students then ran to the foreign students’ hall to inform their friends of this attack after which several African students “began to arm themselves with wooden sticks, empty Jinling beer bottles and stones.”
Official accounts stress that the African students were difficult to manage. African student accounts stress the racist provocation of the Chinese students. Regardless of whose “fault” it was (I personally believe the African students’ interpretation of events), there was a fundamental hardening of Chinese student attitudes after the incident. Within hours, a rumor of a Chinese woman being kidnapped by the African students mobilized 300 Chinese students to lay siege against the African students’ dormitories, and both group of students fought until 4 a.m. on December 25.
On December 25, Christmas Day, another group of 300 Chinese students attacked the foreign students’ hall because they believed a rumor that a Chinese man had been killed by an African student the night before, but the authorities had failed to arrest him. Shouting that they wanted to “kill the black devils,” they began another melee with the African students, which lasted for over two hours until it was broken up by the police. The General Union of African Students in China (GUASC) requested from the university a police escort to the train station so they could go to Beijing to contact their respective embassies, which was swiftly refused. The African students, after suffering multiple attacks from mobs and being offered minimal protection by the university administrators, decided to go to the rail station on foot. To the Chinese students, it looked like they were fleeing after one of their own had murdered a Chinese man and that the government was letting them go free.
In the evening, 600 students from Hehai University went off to gather support for their cause. They marched to Nanjing University, but as Sullivan recounts, “only a handful of students… responded. The vast majority had been bribed with five RMB and a special meal by the school authorities not to participate.” Though Nanjing University did not offer much in the way of student support, other universities had students march in unison with the Hehai contingent, where they eventually made their way to the Jinling Hotel, the largest hotel in Nanjing and where the protesters believed the local officials were hiding the African students. Those African students, in the meantime, made their way to the Nanjing rail station but had no tickets to board any trains, and the security bureau would not allow them to leave because they needed to get to the bottom of what happened during the Christmas Eve fight. The bureau stationed forces to both prevent the African students from leaving and the Chinese students from attacking the African students.
On December 26, as the Chinese students were returning to their universities, a group of 200 went to Nanjing University again to try and muster more support for their cause. A group of white foreigners engaged with the protesters, and when asked why they wanted to kill the African students, a Chinese protester explained that they wanted justice for the Africans’ supposed killing of one of his classmates, and that he had no quarrel with white foreigners. Undercover policemen grabbed that student and a few others and hauled them away. Student demonstrators went to the Nanjing Provincial Government Building complex and demanded that the legal system be changed so as not to privilege foreigners, and that the murderers be arrested. The Chinese police dispersed the crowd after an hour. More dark-skinned foreigners went to the Nanjing rail station as they came under attack by racist Chinese mobs, and several non-dark-skinned foreign students from the US, Japan and Europe also joined in solidarity. This group of 140 foreign students was eventually discovered by the Chinese student demonstrators, and they gathered 3,000 supporters to insure that “justice” was meted to the murderers. In the end, the situation was resolved when armed guards forced the African students onto buses and transported them to a military guest house in Yizheng, roughly an hour outside of Nanjing. This protected the African students, removed their presence from the student demonstrators, and allowed the police to hold the instigators of the Christmas Eve incident, whoever it might be.
Beginning on December 27, the police took steps to quash any further demonstrations in Nanjing, and, perhaps most importantly, had a spokesperson at the Jiangsu Ministry of Education inform that public that nobody had died during the Christmas Eve incident. While there were limited pockets of further demonstrations, they had all ended by December 30 in Nanjing. PRC authorities also moved quickly to make sure stories about the incident did not leak to the US or European press, as non-African students came under increased surveillance and the African students were indirectly told that they would face expulsion if they communicated their experiences to foreign reporters.
Also, on December 27, Sullivan writes:
A diplomatic delegation representing the African nations of Zambia, Ghana, Congo, Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Senegal, Equatorial Guinea and Niger were allowed to travel to Yizheng to meet the African students. The diplomats were not successful in winning the release of their students, reflecting the African nations’ lack of influence with the Chinese government.
In contrast, the American students that were brought to Yizheng were immediately returned to Nanjing after the US consulate threatened Chinese authorities. While in Yizheng, on December 31 the police forcefully held six African students they believed to be responsible for the Christmas Eve incident, and the Hehai students were taken to a military base while the others were sent back to Nanjing. The remaining Hehai students returned to their university on January 5, though not after new regulations were created to ensure that they could not have Chinese girlfriends sleep with them in the university. Of the six detained students, three were released, and three were expelled.
This marks the end of the incident proper, though there were still flare ups in other cities, including mob attacks on African students in Wuhan—the same Wuhan where African students faced difficult choices some 30 years later. Kaiser Kuo had been in Beijing during that winter and had heard about the protests, and he graciously took to the time to share his recollections in a personal email correspondence, from Washington DC, on December 20th, 2012:
I was actually in Beijing in the winter of 1988-1989, not in Nanjing, but there were some anti-African protests that spread to Beijing as well, and there was (back in those days, without the Internet or any more reliable means of transmission) all sorts of confusion as to where the actual events took place to spark anti-African demonstrations …
… We kept hearing stories, filtered of course through a very unsympathetic international student crowd, that they started simply because some African students in Nanjing (other versions said Hangzhou, and sometimes these stories were repeated with Beijing as the setting) had taken some Chinese girls to a dance and weren’t allowed in, or had trouble with the security or with male Chinese students at the door. These stories escalated into tales about fistfights, about sexual assaults, even about a woman who was supposed to have been (in the exact words I was told) “fucked to death” by African men whose penises were too large for her, so she bled out. I was very skeptical, and was horrified when there were actual marches in Beijing protesting against African students.
Incidentally, there appeared to be a connection between the Nanjing Anti-African Protests and Tiananmen in 1989, as it fused nationalism, racism, gender and youth movement into a powerful force. This confluence is further explored in the important scholarship on Chinese conceptions of race, though Sautman and Sullivan’s articles provide excellent backgrounds on the genesis of the Nanjing protests as they related to Chinese racism, nationalism, and perhaps most importantly, the protection of Chinese women. To wit, as noted in Sautman, a 25-year-old Chinese man quoted by John Pomfret in January 1989 said:
When I look at their black faces, I feel uncomfortable. When I see them with our women, my heart boils.
Then and now
Note that one of the most telling aspects of this incident is that African countries could not pressure the Chinese government to release their students from Yizheng, while the US could. Considering that there were only two students from two countries, Benin and Liberia, who were actually involved in the Christmas Eve gate incident, at minimum the Chinese government could have figured out which countries’ citizens were not involved and released them, but that did not happen.
One might argue that African governments exerted similarly weak pressure regarding the crisis in Guangzhou. However, African governments exerted strong public and private pressure on behalf of their citizens in response to the incident, and that did generate statements from various organs of official China. Did this pressure have a material effect of Africans on the ground? That is a more difficult question, and answering it would require an entirely new investigation, but getting official China to make any statement is an achievement. Moreover, African governments indicate that these sort of repeated bouts of discrimination against Africans may no longer be acceptable. As Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, HE Mr. Kwesi Quartey said earlier this month: “Africa values its relationship with China but not at any price. Further act of brutality meted out to Africans will not be countenanced by the African Union and indeed all Africans.”
In conclusion, the Nanjing Anti-African Protests were a defining moment of Sino-African relations because they revealed how people on the ground interacted, rather than what leaders expressed to each other in meetings and in documents. To be clear, Chinese people are not uniquely or irredeemably racist. Americans have their own history of rioting against black students, for example. We must collectively ensure that these narratives are part of the current discourse. To that end, part of maintaining these stories is connecting them to the present when necessary. Africans suffer because of the color of their skin, because of false rumors, because of short-sighted Chinese officials, because of a prickly national government. These underlying issues have not significantly improved in the intervening decades.
Adapted from On This Day: The 1988-1989 Nanjing Anti-African Protests. (Cowries and Rice)
This post is from a new 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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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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