In a short audiovisual promo on John Pombe Magufuli, the narrator lists eight reasons “why he is Africa’s most beloved president”. He describes the Magufuli as an “outlier”, a “hard worker”, a “no-nonsense politician” and a “schoolteacher”, who is the “son of a peasant”. Throughout the narration, which is accompanied by pictures of Magufuli collecting garbage, visiting a hospital, stopping to talk to wananchi and driving a rapid transit bus, the underlying message is that the Tanzanian president is a down-to-earth leader who was elected to be in the service of the people.
It does not take a lot of imagination to know that the video, which was released early this year, is about the October 2020 elections. The president has been described as a self-assured politician and portrays himself as a man who is least bothered by what others say about him. He, nonetheless, cares about what kind of message, he would like to relay to the people before the presidential election. And the message is that of a popular, people-connecting president that the Tanzanians would have no problems re-electing.
For a president who believes in Pan-Africanism and is considered a nationalist, as we will presently see, it comes off as odd that this particular political message on Magufuli has been crafted and narrated by an American. Besides the obvious overriding American accent of the narrator, the text also appears to be written by a foreigner. President Magufuli’s sourcing of a Western public relations firm to tell his presidential story of the last four years belies a man who is insecure about his image. Even though he gives the impression that the West – or indeed any powerful country – will not dictate to him, he still cares about what the outside world thinks of him, insofar as his re-election bid is concerned.
Yet, because he is an eccentric man, he has publicly questioned the science of pandemics, and claimed that in his Tanzania, coronavirus is not such a big deal because Tanzanians are God-fearing people and that God, in his infinite ways, has stopped the spread of the virus in the country. On June 7, 2020, at a Catholic chapel in Dodoma, the president told the congregation that neither observed social distancing nor wore face masks that “coronavirus in our country has been eradicated by the mighty powers of our Lord”.
At another meeting addressing teachers in Dodoma in the same month, he confidently declared there wasn’t any trace of coronavirus in Tanzania. At the meeting, he made fun of Tanzanians who wore face masks: “The other day, I was shocked to see the National Assembly speaker all alone in Parliament wearing a face mask…my dear Tanzanians, let us believe in God. If someone brings you a face mask, you don’t even know where he got it from, refuse it, please tell him to wear it himself and his family in their house.”
Yet, because he is an eccentric man, he has publicly questioned the science of pandemics, and claimed that in his Tanzania, coronavirus is not such a big deal because Tanzanians are God-fearing people and that God, in his infinite ways, has stopped the spread of the virus in the country.
In early June, writing from the northern town of Arusha, a Tanzanian lawyer, who cannot be named for fear of retribution, wrote:
The truth of COVID-19 in Tanzania has been masked by the government officials and the reality of the infected persons and fatalities in Tanzania is skyrocketing daily. We can’t express this due to fear of intimidation and repressive laws that the government is increasingly imposing on Tanzania. The disease has gotten out of control and the hospitals have been overwhelmed. The recent claims by the government that Tanzania has fully contained the disease is a pernicious lie. Magufuli and his authoritarian government are making attempts to decongest the hospitals by releasing patients to take care of themselves at home.
Home care management is a challenge to Tanzanians and the true reckoning of the fatalities would not emerge to the entire world until the pandemic is over. An instance is the Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam that had the best and well-equipped ward for coronavirus patients, but several people were dying each night. There have been night burials in cemeteries in Njiru and Kisutu, where a number of corpses have been buried since April 13.
The punitive restrictions on public sharing and accessing of COVID-19 information, have kept mouths quiet. Magufuli has also planted a seed of discontent where lawyers, activists and journalists are arrested when sharing independently verified data of the disease. Three media organisations have been suspended. The president failed to treat the disease with utmost seriousness at the onset and he’s yet to regret. Other African countries may think we’re at a comfort, but deep inside the city, it is burning down and the neighbouring countries will soon feel the impact. Magufuli has been hiding in his home village in Chato for a couple of months, yet he has left everything to Tanzanians.
Magufuli is a man who very much believes in himself; his attitude borders on arrogance, said a keen observer of the president from his days as Minister of Roads, but who asked for anonymity for fear of backlash from either the president or his henchmen. “He is extremely stubborn, sceptical of foreign ideologies of the West and China. He questions such concepts as the universality of human rights, but likes to wear his Christianity on his sleeve.”
President Magufuli, just like Julius Nyerere and William Benjamin Mkapa before him, is a Catholic, but unlike the two, he likes to flaunt his Catholicism. “Nyerere was a much more devout Catholic than even Magufuli and Mkapa, but you’d never hear Mwalimu talk about religion. His faith was an absolutely private affair”.
The observer said that Magufuli’s coronavirus antics are a well-calibrated move to win the favour of religious leaders. “He has been on a campaign trail and the coronavirus, which has hit people hard, has not been a welcome release to a people who already were experiencing a money crunch time. The repeated mantra about trusting in the Lord in the wake of the pandemic is a clever tactic by President Magufuli to play on the Tanzanians’ religious creed and beliefs. A dangerous game, but one that he hopes will deliver winning votes come the October elections.”
On June 17, 2020, President Magufuli announced that he would be vying for his re-election bid, and dissolved Parliament in readiness for the general elections. By the time he was picking his nomination papers on the same day, the electoral commission had also finished cleaning up the voters’ register – a voters’ register that many opposition figures claim is in complete control of the government and the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party.
That notwithstanding, the opposition is still in disarray: Any major opposition figure to President Magufuli’s CCM is either in exile or, if in the country, is facing politically-motivated prosecution or has re-joined CCM.
Tundu Lissu, who is the former MP for Singida East and a member of the opposition party Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (Chadema), is in exile in Brussels, Belgium. In September, 2017, while going home in the evening in Dodoma, he was shot at several times and was lucky to have escaped with his life. Lissu is a harsh critic of President Magufuli, and many Chadema supporters believe that this was an assassination attempt. He was first taken to a local hospital, then was airlifted to Nairobi Hospital in Kenya for specialised treatment. After his stay at Nairobi Hospital, he travelled to Europe to recuperate as he plotted his next move.
A week before the president dissolved Parliament, Lissu announced that he would be running for the presidency. On June 30, President Magufuli was declared the sole CCM candidate for the October 2020 general elections. The exact date of the polls has not been released, but many Tanzanians believe it will be at the end of October. In his short acceptance speech, the president said he had seen it proper to vie again because the people and God were behind his candidature.
Freeman Mbowe, the chairman of Chadema, the main opposition party, and the MP for Hai in the Kilimanjaro region, was detained in March this year for failing to appear before a court. On June 6, he was waylaid by some unknown people on his way home in Dodoma. Mbowe has criticised President Magufuli on his handling of the coronavirus crisis, and has accused the president of being lackadaisical on a deadly disease that might just wipe scores of Tanzanians if not properly handled. Soon after these criticisms, a newspaper associated with Mbowe, Tanzania Daima, was shut down by the government on the pretext that it was flouting national laws, as well as journalistic ethics.
Zitto Kabwe of the Alliance of Change and Transparency ACT Wazalendo and the MP for Kigoma Urban was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to one year in prison in May this year. On June 24, he was released on bail after being accused of holding an illegal meeting in the town of Kilwa. The 44-year-old opposition figure, who excites the Tanzanian youth, has been a thorn in the flesh of President Magufuli. Kabwe’s ACT Wazalendo party is considered by Tanzanians as the fastest growing political party in the country. CCM stalwarts have been wary of the fledgling opposition outfit.
Edward Lowassa defected back to CCM in March 2019 after his dalliance with the opposition party Chadema, which he had joined in a huff after being denied the CCM party presidential nomination ticket in July 2015. In a deft manoeuvre, Magufuli wooed back Lowassa, saying he welcomed him back to his original home. With Lowassa safely back in CCM, President Magufuli can breathe easy as he plots to deal with Lissu and Kabwe.
The Civic United Front (CUF), the dominant party in the islands of Pemba and Zanzibar, was left weakened when veteran politician Maalim Seif Shariff Hamad left the party in March 2019 and joined Kabwe’s ACT Wazalendo party. This was after long-running party wrangles involving Hamad and Prof Ibrahim Lipumba, who left the party in 2015, returned the next year, only to be stripped of his party membership. The wrangles, which the party’s wafurukutwa (party adherents) blamed on President Magufuli, were split into two factions: one led by Hamad and another led by Prof Lipumba. When Hamad left, Lipumba assumed his position as the chairman of CUF.
In 2015, John Magufuli was nowhere near being the ruling party’s favourite candidate; the main contenders were, among others, Edward Lowassa and Bernard Membe, the former foreign affairs minister. Magufuli was an underdog in the CCM presidential race, but he still went ahead and picked the nomination papers. He had only been in politics for 15 years, having been elected as an MP in 1995, the year Benjamin Mkapa was elected the president. In a strange twist of fate, Magufuli bagged the nomination ticket.
Lowassa, who was a frontrunner, was ostensibly considered to be too mired in state capture. Even CCM wakereketwa (party diehards) felt threatened by his immense powers. Mbembe, the other influential candidate, was thought to be too close to the outgoing president, Jakaya Kikwete. CCM mandarins were not sure whether if he was picked as the party flag bearer and was elected the president, Kikwete would still not be calling the shots. In a party compromise gesture, the mandarins settled for the innocuous Magufuli. By doing so, they hoped to appease both the Lowassa and Mbembe groups. “Had the party favoured one of the two groups’ candidates, it probably would have broken,” said a Tanzanian analyst.
Magufuli’s triumph as the eventual CCM party candidate in 2015 was against a backdrop of intense infighting and lobbying. When Mkapa threw his weight behind the neophyte Magufuli, a fellow Catholic and Nyerereist, he won the day. His selection nonetheless saw Lowassa flee to the opposition to face him at the ballot box, but with the CCM’s juggernaut and government machinery behind him, Magufuli’s victory was a foregone conclusion.
Putting his house in order
When he became president, Magufuli’s first call of duty was to put the CCM house in order and quell factional battles, bitterness and fallout within Nyerere’s party. By the following year, in 2016, the Tanzanian president had set out to reorganise the party’s national leadership by purging the people he considered to be “renegades” without necessarily splitting the party. He placed his loyalists in key positions, but deftly retained his opponents for the party unity’s sake. It was also the year he becomes the party’s chairman. Between 2016 and 2018, the non-nonsense Magufuli was the darling of the people in the country and even outside of Tanzania.
Magufuli’s triumph as the eventual CCM party candidate in 2015 was against a backdrop of intense infighting and lobbying. When Mkapa threw his weight behind the neophyte Magufuli, a fellow Catholic and Nyerereist, he won the day.
It is from 2018 that President Magufuli’s policies became clearer: he cracked down on institutional corruption in the government, unnerving well-entrenched CCM’s honchos and tenderprenuers used to doing business with government. He moved to cut down powerful networks that had turned some well-heeled Tanzanians into billionaires overnight. He even threatened them with jail sentences if they persisted or if they were caught doing business with the government.
“During Kikwete’s tenure, colleagues I was with in college several years back, and who were your usual civil servants working for government parastatals, had become overnight millionaires, supplying the government with all manner of goods at inflated prices,” said my Tanzanian friend, adding that Kikwete’s tenure will be remembered by Tanzanians as one that was rife with state corruption.
As President Magufuli progressed into 2019, he oversaw the passage of new amendments and laws curtailing the operations of civil society and the media. Magufuli has been suspicious of civil society and the media, and has been accused of being intolerant of both institutions. He will brook no dissent or even the mildest of criticism of him, his party CCM and his government. On his orders, some Tanzanian journalists have been hauled to court, oftentimes to answer trumped up charges. Civil society activists are unduly harassed. He has shut down media outlets that he has accused of pushing the opposition agenda.
His populist policies and roadside declarations were accompanied by a crackdown on the powerful CCM wakereketwa, who had become unhappy with his sudden move to cut down on their supply chains. Imbued with a charming candour, President Magufuli quickly developed a rapport with the populace, who he dazzled with his anti-corruption crusade. It has not been unusual for the president to take time off from State House and go for an inspection tour of government projects countrywide when he finds they have not lived up to the expectations of the people and the government. He has promptly excoriated the public officials concerned, to the applause of the assembled people. At one time, he even sacked a public official on the spot for what the president said was dereliction of duty.
Steeped in Pan-Africanism, economic nationalism and nationalist interests, President Magufuli’s foreign policy is located in the left of CCM’s foreign policy manual: he is opposed to the interpretation of capitalism and civil liberties. Therefore, President Magufuli was bound to question Western business and civil liberties’ arrangements. He is suspicious of the concept of the universality of human rights as defined by the West; his firm belief is that these should be subservient to the national interest.
His populist policies and roadside declarations were accompanied by a crackdown on the powerful CCM wakereketwa, who had become unhappy with his sudden move to cut down on their supply chains. Imbued with a charming candour, President Magufuli quickly developed a rapport with the populace, who he dazzled with his anti-corruption crusade.
During his first term as president, Magufuli’s economic nationalism has come to bear on the foreign companies doing business in Tanzania. He has cancelled or reviewed contracts of companies that he has deemed inimical to the country’s interests. For example, he cancelled the Chinese contract to build the Bagamoyo port. The Tanzanian government first broached the idea of the port in 2013 when Kikwete was the president. The idea was built a harbour and a special economic zone, which was to cost $10 billion. Magufuli is reported to have said that only a drunkard would agree to such terms.
The port, which is 75 kilometres from the port city of Dar es Salaam, was to have been built by China Merchants Holding International (CMHI). But according to The ChinaAfrica Project website post of April 27, 2020, “Negotiations between the two-sides hit an impasse last year when the talks broke done over the terms of the contract that President Magufuli believes his predecessor poorly negotiated. But since last October, when the President informed CMHI that he would not accept the terms, we haven’t (heard) regarding the status of the project.”
Magufuli reviewed the standard gauge railway (SGR) contract that was also supposedly to be undertaken by the Chinese and gave the job to a Turkish consortium. The 420-kilometre railway track, which is being built at a cost of $1.92 billion, is to run from the central Tanzania town of Morogoro to Makutupora. The entire SGR project is projected to ultimately run from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma, passing through the lakeshore city of Mwanza and connecting to Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.
During his first term as president, Magufuli’s economic nationalism has come to bear on the foreign companies doing business in Tanzania. He has cancelled or reviewed contracts of companies that he has deemed inimical to the country’s interests.
In a brazen move and to cement his nationalistic credentials, Magufuli took control of the purchase of cashewnuts and told farmers that the government would buy all of their produce.
The president reviewed the mining sector’s operations and stopped the mining of mineral ore. He also reviewed the government’s contract with the Canadian mining company, Barrick Gold. He told the company that only if it shared its proceeds 50-50 would it be allowed to mine Tanzania’s gold. But after the company’s lengthy discussions with government officials, the president agreed to a 16 per cent share.
After signing the new contract, the president profusely thanked the Almighty Lord for a fruitful discussion with the Canadian conglomerate.
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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.
Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.
The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.
The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.
The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He/she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.
KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.
IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?
The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.
Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.
In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.
My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.
Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.
When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.
Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.
According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?
Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.
Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.
The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”
The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”
With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.
A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”
The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.
However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”
These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.
With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.
#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.
Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.
But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.
East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.
In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.
Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.
Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.
In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:
We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.
In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”
If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?
Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.
A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.
Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.
Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.
The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”
But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)
Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.
Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”
What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.
Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.
While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.
As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.
But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.
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