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From Insurgency to Jihad: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump

12 min read.

Trump’s attacks on liberal and progressive forces have morphed from an all-or-nothing insurgency to a highly networked guerilla war.

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From Insurgency to Jihad: The Rise and Fall of Donald Trump
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The insurgency

Donald Trump barged into the political arena, and within a relatively short period of time, reconfigured the American political landscape. He won the 2016 election by a razor-thin margin in key electoral states and lost the 2020 election by only a slightly larger razor-thin margin. The election quantified the hypothesis that President Trump’s iconoclastic performance as head of state did little to alter the polarised perceptions dominating American politics.

Capturing the many voters disenchanted with both the Republican and the Democratic parties was the secret sauce powering Trump’s success. But instead of moving towards the middle once in power, Trump’s style of governance reinforced the gap. Both elections appear to have left the nation’s democratic equilibrium poised on a precarious fulcrum.

Security analyst John Robb was the first to analyse Donald Trump’s 2016 run at the presidency as an insurgency. Trump entered the primaries as an outsider and proceeded to dispense with the usual rules and protocols. His initial focus on the nation’s entrenched financial interests was coupled with his lack of clear positions on issues that would potentially divide his growing constituency. The assault on the mainstream media, which formed the second prong of his strategy, insulated him from the stream of criticism directed at his person and candidacy.

Self-funding his campaign further buffered the growing movement from the Republican Party establishment. Trump’s insurrection carried him into the White House, and he proceeded to trash the conventional sensibilities of the two-party system and the political campaign industry process.

Where many of us saw the Obama presidency as the end of a cycle dating back to the civil rights movement, as it turned out, it set in motion a new dialectic.

Blue Church versus Red Religion 

At the turn of the millennium, Bill Clinton was at the forefront of academic analysts and policy pundits who used the Davos Economic Forum to promulgate the idea that the world’s financial architecture needed a structural makeover to address the challenges of the new century. Nothing happened. Structural inequality continued to facilitate elite control of the news media and political narratives. The West continued to invest in China, assuming that economic liberalisation will lead to political democratisation. The Forever War festered, draining financial resources that should have been reinvested at home.

The Obama presidency was not an anomaly in regard to these trends, and the Tea Party emerged as a direct response. Funded by the Koch Brothers’ political cartel, the Tea Party mobilised a large body of formerly politically inert citizens, including voters who had not responded to the activism of the religious right that contributed to the electoral success of the two Bush presidents.

Where many of us saw the Obama presidency as the end of a cycle dating back to the civil rights movement, as it turned out, it set in motion a new dialectic.

At its peak, public support for the movement was over 25 per cent of the electorate, with many more sympathetic towards its goals. The Tea Party and its congressional caucus became a party within a party. Although it could not enact its agenda on the national scale, the Tea Party drove many moderate Republicans out of public office. Due to the diversity of internal interests, its settled on a strategy that focused blame on big government, spearheaded by Grover Norquist’s radical anti-tax movement that had served as the driver of Newt Gringrich’s Contract with America during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

The Tea Party platform enjoyed the support of second-tier politicians like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Ron Paul and other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination won by Mitt Romney in 2012. Trump gained favour with the movement through his anti-Obama antics, but otherwise was not seen as an active player. Four years later, pro-Tea Party candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Lindsay Graham denigrated Donald Trump when he entered the race, only to change their colours when Trump’s scorched earth campaign reduced them to spectators.

Trump launched his candidacy by excoriating big donors, including political action committees empowered by the Citizens United legislation passed through the Koch brothers’ political machine. He derided his opponents for flocking to secret fundraising retreats hosted by the Koch Brothers’ cartel. The libertarian financiers opposed Trump in the beginning, but this divide was eventually bridged by his selection of Mike Pence for his running mate, a creation of the Koch political machine.

Assumptions about Trump’s poor prospects failed to factor in the larger forces contributing to Americans’ growing uncertainty and fear of the future. The domestic opportunity costs of Bush Junior’s foreign wars were exacerbated by the post-regime change failures of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. The financial profligacy accompanying these interventions, Wall Street’s sub-prime mortgage pyramid scheme, and the state’s acquiescence to the lopsided relationship with China helped prepare the ground for the coming insurgency.

The state’s response to the post-9/11 terrorism threat created the biggest concentrations of financial resources since World War II, including the new Department for Homeland Security. The war chest became a magnet for bipartisan insider interests. Obama’s failure to reckon with the public’s disenchantment added to the accumulating problems accompanying the erosion of working class conditions in the nation’s heartland.

This allowed Trump’s campaign to portray the Democrats as the party of war while elevating Hillary Clinton to a symbol of the military-industrial complex’s self-interest. Under Steve Bannon’s direction, the Trump campaign effectively used propaganda to create an alternative narrative that bypassed the opposition’s criticism, while portraying them as supporters of policies responsible for America’s decline at home and abroad.

Trump’s campaign prioritised media-based tactics over the scripted playbook; in any case, mobilisation took precedence over the game of debating the movement’s political platform. The media blitzkrieg, refreshed with footage from Trump’s rock star performances at his rallies, condensed all of these elements into the Make America Great Again (MAGA) Kool-Aid. Hillary Clinton appeared to be winning most of the battles. But when the fog lifted, the same country that elected Barrack Obama to two terms had elected Donald Trump. No one knew how to best cope with the insurgency once he was in office.

The systems analyst, Jonathan Hall, portrayed the Trump insurgency on the campaign trail as highly effective desert guerrillas bent on turning everything into a desert. He described how the Trump campaign’s guerilla methods succeeded in creating confusion and disorder within the opposition camp. The insurgents were able to make the enemy over and under-react to activity that appeared to be ambiguous or misleading to an enemy aligned with the mainstream narrative.

In his 2017 Situational Assessment, Hall stated that the Trump insurgency was based on a new model of collective intelligence committed to disrupting the system on four fronts: the communications and media infrastructure; the economy of globalisation; the deep state; and the new culture war. He cast the latter as the battleground where the new Red Religion, which has emerged as the new counterculture, enjoys a strong advantage over the Blue Church, which has over the decades subverted many of the values of the American counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. In the process, the Blue Church evolved into the same military-industrial and congressional political machine President Dwight Eisenhower had termed as the greatest threat to American democracy in 1958.

Trump actually crafted a line of attack similar to that to the original Blue Religion (my term) interpretation of American exceptionalism. It was relatively moderate but more focused compared to the political rhetoric of the Baby Boomers’ uprising. Unlike the moon-shot confidence of mid-century America driving the collective intelligence of the Blue Religion that emerged during that era, the Baby Boomers who responded to Trump’s message were reacting from a very different place.

Even before his election, analyses of the trauma many Americans were experiencing unpacked the deep-seated psychological factors contributing to the belief that the nation was primed for the entrance of a male hero, a champion who could bring order back to a chaotic world. These arguments demonstrate the human proclivity to “identify with the aggressor” during times of heightened uncertainty. This accounts for the movement’s more extreme contradictions, like the fact that the states most dependent on federal largesse provided the most passionate fans of the “drain the swamp” meme.

In his 2017 Situational Assessment, Hall stated that the Trump insurgency was based on a new model of collective intelligence committed to disrupting the system on four fronts: the communications and media infrastructure; the economy of globalisation; the deep state; and the new culture war.

During recent decades, the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society, and other neo-Nazi organisations have transformed themselves from post-Reconstruction defenders of the white race to a rabidly anti-government network. Between 2008 and 2015, the Patriot Movement, a loose network of armed conspiracy theorists, had expanded from 149 groups to 874 in 2015, an increase of nearly 500 per cent.

Trump defied common sense by refusing to distance himself from the emboldened forces on the nation’s lunatic fringe. His dalliance with the KKK’s David Duke during the campaign and his failure to condemn the Charlottesville neo-Nazi marchers confirmed the outsized influence of Barrack Obama in the new head of state’s mind. His implicit acceptance of white supremacists became a show-stopper that worked to negate the import of the substantive policy initiatives he raised for potential Blue Religion converts.

The president’s excessive narcissism further complicated efforts to implement his MAGA mission.

Trump’s White House conundrum

Modern insurgencies are built by crafting a new narrative appealing to homeland religious and cultural values, and by exploiting their asymmetric advantages, like Trump’s use of Twitter to communicate directly with his supporters. They often require the rise of a charismatic leader to set them in motion.

Trump’s connection with his base attracted in turn the support of commentators like Fox TV star Tucker Carlson who, like Trump, originally grew his audience by attacking the corporate elite seen to control Washington. Carlson and other alt-right commentators walked the thin line of attacking the stereotyped Democratic Party enemy while avoiding direct criticism of the president’s failure to take on the economic elite and his controversial flirtations with dictators and traditional enemies abroad.

They seemed to be caught in an alt-right tractor beam that undermined their legitimacy among many in the wider audience when they did underscore important points. This worked well when it came to feeding the base, but it also deprived the Trump policy machine of the trusted feedback normal governments need to stay on course.

This was never going to be a normal government, but unlike the success of his disruptive methods on the campaign trail, Trump was not able to turn his populism into a clear advantage on the policy front. Gifted a growing economy by Barack Obama, the new captain steered the ship of the state straight into the heavy headwinds mainly of his own creation. Foreign policy offered the most promising area for gaining traction, but success proved elusive. Trump’s flirtations with Kim il Jong and Vladimir Putin distracted from his efforts to reconstruct trade relations with China.

The military advisors that Trump appointed during the transition provided the main constraint. One blogger described what happened:

Trump was hauled into a Pentagon basement “tank” and indoctrinated by the glittering four-star generals he admired since he was a kid. The session was part of the ongoing education of a president who arrived at the White House with no experience in the military or government and brought with him advisers deeply skeptical of what they labeled the “globalist” worldview. Trump was sold the establishment policies he originally despised. No alternative view was presented to him.

The author described the operation as “historically, the US military’s first successful counterinsurgency campaign”. The battle with the deep state ended in stalemate. Tearing up treaties proved to be easier than cutting new deals. The insurgency’s failure to overturn Obamacare provided an early marker of its limits.

Navigating the transition from rebellion to governing is the litmus test of successful insurgencies. The Trump regime struggled with this problem, starting with the backtracking when he named his key appointments. His transition team, for example, included the kind of corporate insiders he had assaulted during his campaign, including a Treasury Secretary recruited from Goldman Sachs. The eclectic crew Trump assembled opened up internal rifts in his White House.

Soon the president was fighting his own team. Staff walked the plank, others were keelhauled in public, and after months of ridicule, the Attorney General was dumped unceremoniously. Trump’s quest for unconditional loyalty led him to fall back on family and close friends like Rudy Giuliani, and to use events like the clash in Charlottesville to fire up the base. His first Chief of Staff, General Jim Mattis, was eased out after opposing Steve Bannon, who shortly afterwards was shown the door when he clashed with son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The churn became a consistent pattern.

Trump’s allies in the media remained in insurrection mode in the presence of the growing number of setbacks and self-inflicted blunders. Commentators who excelled in turning obscure stories and isolated incidents into larger narratives sidestepped fact-driven analysis of complex issues, and avoided constructive criticism of the Trump government in general.

Blue Church media critics fought back by retreating into the role of the moral resistance who evaluated many of Trump’s policies as an extension of his unsavoury persona.  Congressional Democrats contributed to the quagmire by equating Russian maskirovka with collusion, then launching their doomed-to-fail impeachment gambit. Although the mid-term elections provided the Democrats with a much-needed respite, they were not able to leverage their momentum into a more effective counterinsurgency strategy.

Soon the president was fighting his own team. Staff walked the plank, others were keelhauled in public, and after months of ridicule, the Attorney General was dumped unceremoniously.

The outcome was four years of trench warfare. Both sides slogged it out, making small inroads only to relinquish their gains on one front by overplaying their hand on another. Instead of using his China policy to unite the nation behind his government’s most critical initiative, Trump continued to antagonise potential allies on the other side of the aisle. Progressive activists reciprocated by carelessly using the Defund the Police slogan to brand their push for reforms while cities were burning.

Then the pandemic came. Trench warfare morphed from metaphor into real-life strategy as cities and states locked down to defend against the corona virus. Would the civilian Donald Trump have adopted the same anti-science position the Presidential Trump championed? As it turned out, what could have been seized as the final opportunity to transform his insurgency into a war against a common enemy ended up being the battleground for its last stand in the White House.

The aftermath

Joseph Biden’s narrow victory has set the stage for another four years of the Obama-Trump dialectical status quo. The Republicans lost the White House but made gains in most other areas, including the state legislatures that will be in charge of the next phase of redistricting. As many commentators have pointed out, there is also the matter of the 73 million Americans who voted for Trump.

The new government, including many figures from former President Obama’s administration, is taking shape at a time when widespread allegations of electoral fraud have exposed the desperation of the insurgency’s Trumped-up narratives. If the Democrats post-2016 strategy reflected serious errors of judgment and the lack of a coherent strategy, Trump’s post-electoral Twitter offensive and the legal response backing it has been a comedy of errors, highlighting the kind of double-speak semantics Republican spin doctors have resorted to since the Reagan era.

In one Pennsylvania case where Trump’s team tried to stop ballot counting, the lawyers were forced to admit, contrary to false claims that no Republican observers were present, that a “nonzero number of Republican observers” were allowed to witness the ballot counting. Another federal judge described the campaign’s legal arguments as “inadmissible hearsay within hearsay”. One legal expert cited in the same report observed that “the lawsuits are so groundless that the lawyers are more likely to be sanctioned for pursuing them than to succeed in court”.

Trump’s unpredictable and flawed leadership compromised the insurgency’s capacity to parlay its incumbency into a popular vote majority. The endgame is emblematic of how the insurgency degenerated into an exercise in disruption that has subjected American democracy to its most severe stress test in decades. But the current state of polarity should not obscure the complex dynamics driving American society.

In a 2017 article, I viewed the Trump insurgency as a useful development. No matter what we may think of Trump the person, he has succeeded in modifying the topography of the political landscape while identifying many of the issues that will continue to be contested during the next phase of globalisation. More importantly, the insurgency has brought into the open the socio-economic dynamics, tactics, and political actors driving the Red Religion.

In the meantime, one survey found that Republican mistrust of the electoral system zoomed from 35 per cent to 75 per cent following the election. This spike, despite this election being the most transparent and invigilated election in the nation’s history, shows that what people say is often distinct from what they really think and how they behave.

Ingenuous responses to the polls is another consequence of the insurgency. Although these numbers will likely prove to be transient, they are providing the platform for the next stage of Donald Trump’s political career. This raises two questions: what proportion of the 73 million Trump voters are hard core insurgents committed to the long haul; and how will Biden’s government influence those who are not?

The Trump government used its control of the White House and the Senate to cement the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, but this is balanced by the demographics favouring progressive forces over the coming decades. The COVID-19 pandemic and the government relief packages it triggered are placing the long-standing defund-the-state anti-tax movement in its real world context. States that cut budgets in line with the Norquist agenda are suffering the effects of crippled education systems and public services. One Koch brother died, and his survivor has reportedly expressed misgivings about their machine’s socially polarising politics.

These developments are, however, complicated by Trump’s role as an agent of radicalisation.

From insurgency to jihad?

Traditional insurgencies are all-or-nothing struggles in which only one side can prevail in the end. Modern jihads, in contrast, are a more networked variation on guerilla warfare that tend to increase their asymmetric advantages when they do not occupy the terrain hosting the populations involved in the contest.

For the past year I have been following a large pro-Trump Twitter group curated by several security analysts. Post-election posts have ranged from legal and geopolitical arguments to nutcase Release the Kraken conspiracy theories. Many tweets in support of Trump since the election continue to elicit five-figure approvals, and sometimes more in the case of prominent Republican supporters. But the likes and retweets for posts calling for extreme responses decline to between three and low four figures, and support for those calling for Boogaloo-style violence rarely total more than two digits.

Donald Trump is not going away. But the defection of some of his key allies in the corridors of power and the distancing of some of his most important media influencers will make it difficult to for him to sustain the political euphoria he fed on. Such defections often signal an insurgency’s decline.

The new culture war will grind on, identity politics are likely here to stay, and the Blue Church may be living on borrowed time. The long-overdue removal of civil war statuary, the Confederate flag ban, and the large multiracial protests against police impunity are examples of Blue Religion maneouvers outflanking the Red Religion’s embrace of indefensible positions.

Donald Trump is not going away. But the defection of some of his key allies in the corridors of power and the distancing of some of his most important media influencers will make it difficult to for him to sustain the political euphoria he fed on. Such defections often signal an insurgency’s decline.

These factors favour the Trump insurgency’s shift into jihadi mode. Donald Trump appeared to bristle under the protocols that came with being head of state. A revengeful Trump released from these constraints could prove to be a hard to control free agent. Just as most of the victims of Islamist extremism are Muslim, this augurs poorly for the Republican Party. Trump has already targeted several Republican state governors, and the party elders are concerned that the carnage will compromise Republican prospects in the next mid-term elections.

The prospects for Trump’s second act in the political arena now appear less than sanguine, especially should the Democratic mount an effective counterinsurgency strategy. There is no shortage of ambitious camp followers hoping to assume the former president’s mantle. Then there is the karmic price to be paid for his antics in public office. Anything could happen, but the same tide that floated his boat is now going out.

Without Donald Trump, the next phase of the insurgency is likely to involve reversion to the low-intensity conflict that was there before his rise, or, to use the more conventional term, a return to politics as usual.

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Politics

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.

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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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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?

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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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Politics

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.

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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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