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Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19

8 min read.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the global farm-to-plate conveyor belt, including related value chain and support industries. This has led to the overhaul of certain sectors and the expansion of others. On the upside, the disruption has also encouraged citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.



Food Protectionism and Nationalism in the Age of COVID-19
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In June 2018, Kenya’s food and beverage import bill crossed the psychological 100 billion mark, underscoring the country’s overreliance on food imports for sustenance. This isn’t news to those in the agriculture sector who recently witnessed our diplomatic kerfuffle with Tanzania degenerate into a blockade that dented food imports and spiked the price of produce in the local market. Kenya imports onions and oranges from Tanzania; eggs, tomatoes, and pineapples from Uganda; poultry products from the United States; as well as fish and garlic from China.

This kind of skewed dependency on imports strains an already dysfunctional agricultural supply chain that has atrophied and shrunk over the decades, thanks to mismanagement, theft and a lax policy environment. The agriculture sector, despite its potential, has been the victim of legislative failures, beginning with the decimation of parastatals in the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1990s, and the consolidation of state functions in ways that were incongruent with the needs of the respective agriculture sub-sectors.

The litany of social and economic ills that result from this laxity stretches long – from local farmers to reduced earnings in state coffers, disadvantaged agro-processors, heightened pressure on the shilling and import shock risks.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

However, a weak regulatory environment, lax enforcement, brazen importers who gang up with state operatives to bring in cheap agro-imports, and depressed prices that have precipitated a significant decline in acreage under farming have negatively impacted the sector. The resulting drop in local supply, coupled with low yields and erratic rain models, have since produced critical shortages such as the ones that hit maize supplies in 2018.

Hence, while competing countries have been regulating their agro-industries, modernising their agro-supply chains, firming up the value chain, and managing the market to control prices, Kenya’s unofficial policy has been one of irascible cartelism, fueled by a few powerful industry players both on the regulatory and market side, who seek to cash in on their connections to state powers.

It also hasn’t also been helpful that in recent years, cash crop farming has monopolised acreage at the expense of other crops. Additionally, the top foods consumed in Kenya constitute milk, maize, wheat, vegetables, potatoes and bananas, which are easier to produce under mechanised farms controlled by a few oligopolies. The end result is loss of agency by the consumer and a patent inability to determine what ends up on a typical Kenyan dinner table.

Kenya’s agriculture sector employs more than 50 per cent of the labour force, accounts for 34.1 per cent of GDP and yet only contributes Sh23.3 billion to state coffers. The growing of crops and animal production combined account for 31.8 per cent of GDP, while support activities account for 0.5 per cent.

This marks the genesis of the cycle that has ensured that Kenyans are vulnerable to the certain kind of food protectionism and nationalism, such as the recent border shutdown by Uganda to truckers and Tanzanians due to a diplomatic tussle that saw food prices spike in the country. While Kenyans made fun of Mexican maize imports, Ugandan ginger, and tomato shortages, underneath that satire lay the profound vulnerability of Kenya’s 50 million tummies to the whims and impulses of random policy makers in countries hundreds of miles from our borders.

If the current food protectionism has taught us anything, it is that food has to become a national security issue and should be accorded the respective policy and structural and supply chain securitisation needed to forestall potential starvation.

The global picture

In March 2020, Vietnam and China stopped rice exports. Russia and Kazakhstan followed suit and briefly banned wheat exports. Around the world, two dozen nations took the cue and started hoarding their primary food exports in false anticipation of global shortages amidst the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic. In total, seventeen major food supply nations placed some form of constraint on agricultural exports in the early weeks of the pandemic. Luckily, speculative behavior in agricultural commodity markets and imposing unnecessary trade restrictions, didn’t trigger food price spikes similar to those in 2007-8. The respective states almost immediately rescinded on the move amidst piling pressure and global economy concerns since the protectionism didn’t bode well for global supply chains and consumers around the world.

In recent years, we’ve increasingly gotten accustomed to the geography and ethnicity of food: that tea is British, coffee is Kenyan; tomatoes and onions are Tanzanian; ginger and bananas are Ugandan; strawberries are South African and Egyptian; fish and garlic are Chinese, poultry is from the United States; maize is from Mexico; and butter comes from South Africa. While this may portend well for global culinary multiculturalism, in times of pandemics such as this, the nationalistic fervour and export disruption exposes us to the vagaries of shortages on the shelves, potential hoarding, and hiked prices.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe. In this system, the world has become highly dependent on a globalised production chain in which dozens of countries straddle the middle of this chain, each adding a new component to the final agro-product. Take the US for example, whose imports account for half of the fresh fruits, a third of the vegetables, and 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in the country.

Food nationalism sometimes gets politicised around origins, such as whether falafel originated in the Mediterranean or in the Middle East, or whether rice from Vietnam is better than rice from Pakistan. In some jurisdictions, this has taken the form of policy protectionism, such as the European Union (EU)’s Protected Geographical Status framework that limits the production of certain potato, tequila, vinegar and cheese varieties to certain regions under specified conditions.

In recent years, the international food system has been built around the capacity of certain countries to specialise in the production of some foods to feed demand in other countries, while importing food items that could not be efficiently produced locally. This has produced a complex cog of farmers, transporters, financiers, and distributors spread across all corners of the globe.

Luckily it isn’t only the exoticism of certain foods that drive food nationalisms; even the working classes in recent years have expressed their concerns through political dissent driven by food: Sudan’s 2018 Bread Revolution, Kenya’s 2011 Unga Revolution, Egypt’s 2017 Wheat Revolution, the French Milk Farmers’ Revolution, among a host of other displeasures with the volatility of the national food basket.

Food sub-nationalism

Within gastro-nationalism there exists local nuance that drives certain protectionisms too. Nyandarua produces 35 per cent of our national potato output. Cashewnuts come from Kilifi. Mwea and Ahero produce rice. Flowers are grown in Naivasha. Vegetables come from the Kisii highlands. Maize is from Kitale. Freshwater fish is from Kisumu. Sisal is from Taveta. Milk comes from Githunguri. Tea comes from the Nandi region.

The March 26th shutdown of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale counties disrupted huge markets that are the purveyors and outlets for these agriproducts. Because of claims of corruption at police barriers along these counties’ borders, rural farmers effectively reduced their supply of farm products, sending the prices of food sky high in urban neighbourhoods.

Barriers erected to contain in-country COVID infection rates have, in turn, created logistical bottlenecks that reduce the supply of basic food commodities, creating an overcapacity in the producing counties while precipitating shortages in urban agricultural markets, such as Kondele and Kibuye in Kisumu, Mwembe Tayari and Kongowea in Mombasa, Soko Mjinga in Kitale, Marikiti in Nairobi, Daraja Mbili in Kisii county, Kagio in Kirinyaga and similar large food markets spread across Kenyan urban centres.

This chokes a critical cog of an already disadvantaged food infrastructure, given that there is an annual demand for 4.5 million tonnes of maize, 2 million tonnes of wheat, 1.3 million tonnes of sugar and 0.7 million tonnes of rice, which is barely met by local production. This deficit is often filled by the import of 1.3 million tonnes of maize, 1.8 million tonnes of wheat and 625,000 tonnes of rice. The overall outlay of Kenya’s food system, therefore, is a combination of disempowered (mostly urban) eaters, powerful agro-cartels who chase higher margins through unregulated food imports, and traders who, as a result of overreliance on imports, have reoriented their supply chains.

Food capitalism

Ironically, hoarding and food nationalism hit amidst a global sufficiency and oversupply mainly driven by China’s and India’s massive investment in grain production, and investments in agriculture in Brazil, Argentina, the United States, Canada, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Overall, less than 25 countries in the world are global net exporters though many in South America, Eastern Europe and South East Asia range between food sufficient and stable exporters.

The world’s poor are bearing the brunt of this, thanks to their poor storage capacities as well as the fact that they often merely make up the unskilled labour needed within the global food supply systems. Britain, a key importer and exporter, had to rely on the importation of labour as a deficit of 90,000 workers had left fruit farms unattended, thus heightening the possibility of farm losses. Britain was forced to seek nearly 10,000 workers from EU and non-EU countries, which remained closed during the height of the pandemic.

Cross-border supply chains and the free movement of consumer goods have increasingly been subjected to unfair trade subsidies, consumer protectionism, and border logistical bottlenecks that reduce the flow of consumer foodstuffs. Surprisingly the hoarding happens just when, unlike previous periods of rampant food inflation, global inventories of staple crops like corn, wheat, soybeans and rice are plentiful.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger brought about by war, climate change, or simply a lack of means, especially in the Global South, while 300 million are at a crisis point.

It’s a testament to the global architecture of hunger that the majority of those in need are in the Global South, partly due to conflicts and climate disasters, but also predominantly due to economic instability that hampers both physical and economic access to food. Resource-rich nations in Africa, Latin America and Asia get stunted by unfair global practices, disastrous political systems propped up by and from the West, and predatory firms from both the East and the West who loot these countries through tax havens and illicit financial flows.

Hence, the food systems across the Global South are impoverished through laxity and political interference, while critical capital that could boost agri-production gets siphoned to the Global North. The resultant losses and deficit are what precipitate the vulnerability and susceptibility to shocks, such as that which has been wrought by the current pandemic.

Culinary identities

While food nationalism entrenches a protectionist model that compromises the legal and political rules of global trade espoused by many treaties and pacts, culinary nationalism simply raises the pride in a country’s culinary history. Large swathes of societies are having to rediscover their comparative advantages as the imports from farmers halfway around the world grind to a halt.

The coronavirus strain and its disruption of supply and value chains has simply fed into a hand- wringing method of protectionism quietly accepted and sometimes loudly proclaimed by belligerents like Donald Trump. This localisation inadvertently provides a perfect cover for those who have long embraced the idea of nationalism.

Food nationalism feeds a strain of food capitalism that sees approximately 1.5 billion tonnes of food wasted globally even as the COVID pandemic impacts food production and supply and guts distribution. Meanwhile, 2020 estimates are that due to the pandemic, a billion people face starvation globally and suffer from some form of hunger…

Even so, the pandemic has also necessitated the closure of some plants, resulted in bankruptcy among some agro-producers, and slowed down processing plants in India, in parts of China, in the United States and Canada, across Brazil, and in Western Europe. On the upside, this has helped citizens to audit the resilience of their local food systems and their capacity to feed people over the long haul.

Grounding of flights and border restrictions have limited the flow of migrant workers to farms that rely on hired labour during the growing and harvest seasons. Meanwhile, wars have decimated grain research centres in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, while coercive legislation is being pushed in certain African countries even as there is criticism of the “NGO-isation” of agriculture in Africa and the push for legislated monopoly on seeds in countries like Kenya and India.

The global food infrastructure in the entire farm-to-plate conveyor belt and the related value chain industries and their support industries are staring at a significant disruption that will overhaul certain sectors, expand others, neuter many, and rejig the wider global reserves, primary producers and suppliers.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Darius Okolla is a researcher based in Nairobi.


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.



Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
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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.

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Patricia Kameri-Mbote: Trailblazing Lawyer Guns for CJ Post

William Ouko: Judge Is a Model of Efficiency but Some Fear He’s Not a ‘Good Luo’

William Ouko: Judge Is a Model of Efficiency but Some Fear He’s Not a ‘Good Luo’

Philip Kipchirchir Murgor: It is the CJ’s Job or Nothing For the Man Who Knows Where the Skeletons are Buried

Philip Kipchirchir Murgor: It is the CJ’s Job or Nothing For the Man Who Knows Where the Skeletons are Buried

David Marete: Judge Proceeds from the Personal to the Judicial

David Marete: Judge Proceeds from the Personal to the Judicial

Juma Chitembwe: ‘Worst judgment’ Judge Seeks a Seat in the Apex Court

Juma Chitembwe: ‘Worst judgment’ Judge Seeks a Seat in the Apex Court

Justice Martha Koome Faces Her Critics Head-On

Justice Martha Koome Faces Her Critics Head-On

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Fredrick Ngatia: Uhuru’s Lawyer Who Added a ‘Province’ to Kenya Now Wants CJ Job


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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?



IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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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.

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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.



East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
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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.

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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