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Murder as Order

8 min read.

We need to be clear: what Ugandans have had was never “peace”, but simply security for the Empire’s interests. And without real peace, even that security will eventually disappear.

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Murder as Order
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In all too familiar scene, a number of Ugandan civilians were shot dead by men with guns (some in uniform) in the process of the National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) government quelling public unrest in various locations around the country in mid-November. The disturbances, which mainly took the form of wananchi blocking highways with burning barricades, some stone-throwing, and also the emergence into broad daylight of muggers and highway robbers, had erupted because of the arrest and detention of the popular opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (aka Bobi Wine) and continued after a fashion until he was produced in court some six days later.

This is not to say that the reported sixty or so fatalities (and many more injured), largely from gunshots, were actively involved in the rioting. Neither is it to say it should be an acceptable method of stopping mass disturbances.

The best indications of how wilfully random these shootings were are the oldest and the youngest shooting victims, both in Kampala city: Amos Segawa was a 15-year-old schoolboy who was killed while standing next to his mother while she locked up her shop as they prepared to leave town; John Kitobe, a 72-year-old retired former accountant and academic, who happened to be in town on personal business, was shot as he made his way out of an office building towards his car.

The intention was clear: deadly collective punishment in a deliberate act of mass intimidation in the name of “security”. This was a continuing fulfilment of a 2016 promise made by the Secretary General of the NRM party, one Justine Kasule Lumumba, to a restive population back then: “The state will kill your children,” she stated in a public speech to parents about the then post-election demonstrations. We now know that she meant their grandparents as well.

But this is completely normal. And that is the tragedy of Uganda’s politics. It is also the ultimate triumph of the NRA/M as an organisation: to have seduced the country into mistaking the political value of security for valuable politics itself.

Without being forensic, one can trace a direct line from these latest killings back to the 1990 shooting dead of two Makerere University students at a sit-down strike protesting the abolition of student allowances; the military deployments against the repeated 1990s attempts by now-forgotten opposition activist Michael Kagwa to hold demonstrations for a return to multipartyism (eliciting the taunt from President Museveni for them to proceed “if you wish to see dead bodies”); the increasingly regular violence from the 1996 election onwards; the 2009 Buganda uprising shootings; the 2010 shootings of demonstrators protesting the burning of Buganda’s royal tombs; and the 2016 killings of over one hundred Rwenzururu palace guards and others in Kasese, and so on.

There is absolutely nothing new in what has just happened, how it happened and what will (not) happen next.

The core item that the National Resistance Army brought to the political table in the 1980s was security. This has remained its primary identity, and key selling point – the issue that made many choose to ignore or overlook its multitude of sins, flaws, and contradictions, but also what made it so valuable to imperialism, concerned, as it has always been, with ensuring its grip on this bounty at the headwaters of the Nile, which feeds other areas of its bounty.

The backstory to this is very critical in understanding why the regime can send operatives on the streets – on foot and in random vehicles, without uniforms or insignia – to shoot to kill an assortment of civilians, with no consequences, domestically, internationally, legally or morally.

The space called Uganda has historically been unstable. However, it suffered two particular periods of intense social and political turmoil that resulted in armed conflict.

The core item that the National Resistance Army brought to the political table in the 1980s was security. This has remained its primary identity, and key selling point…

In the first instance, this was the politics that created the country, where, after some twenty years or so of preaching to children, they had raised an army of militant Christians who proceeded to conquer the region. What we call “Uganda” is actually the end-product of the 1899 victory of the Anglican Christian militia over the rival Muslim and the Catholic militias intent on the same goal: control the Nile at source, and therefore control Egypt. The victors have since then presented this factional advantage as the introduction of “order”, or “peace”, or even “civilization” to the region, delivering it from centuries of slave-dealing, war-mongering heathen African despots. They conveniently forget to mention that it was their religious activism that started the conflict in the first place.The underlying theme to this had been the propagandistic idea of Africa as a chaotic, brutal place in need of a civilizing order.

In the second instance, it is this very same theme that Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army updated, mined extensively, and carried forward as the essential value of their project: their militarist outfit as the competent sub-contractors for the bearing of the White Man’s Burden, bringing an order to a place bedeviled by mad and incompetent despots. Again, what was not mentioned was how all those previous despots had been installed by the West in the first place.

So, the real “consumer” of this security has been the Western corporations, whose investments in minerals, agribusiness, predatory banking and the rest, are kept safe by these excellent askaris. Any local that benefited did so only as an afterthought.

Pax Anglicana

The everyday greeting in the Gisu area of Eastern Uganda is “Mirembe?”, asked as a question.  This word literally means “peace”. However, this is not the actual indigenous traditional greeting. It is a form of salutation that emerged from the Anglican military conquest of the East for the emerging British colony as its Christian army marched eastwards between 1898 and 190, under the trusted generalship of the Muganda Anglican Semei Kakungulu. It was a statement of affirmation between the greeters that all resistance was over, and the new dispensation was now imposed. Shall we accept it, and call that peace?

This is the birth of the duality in Ugandan political thinking, where the absence of overt conflict is mistaken for “peace” as an actual condition. It is a thinking birthed by the contradiction of colonialism: on the one hand, its need to extract and make profit off the colonised space means it must arrive through deception, blackmail, and a lot of violence. On the other hand, there needs to be some kind of order, if not regimentation, for exploitative production to then take place. It is that order that is being misnamed as peace, whereas in fact all it is, is the provision of some kind of security to the new owners.

Even after (southern) Ugandans eventually got tired of reminding each other of how much more “secure” their lives had become after period of the overt military rulers between 1966 and 1986, the NRM continued to do it to them, loud and long, in the decades that followed. Certainly, business-oriented Ugandans (which is most of us) were initially relieved that they could go about their lives without having their homes and businesses invaded, or without being mugged and extorted by individual soldiers jealous of their progress.  But they were unable to speak out because such private complaints could then be deliberately misunderstood as public political pronouncements against the government.

It is a thinking birthed by the contradiction of colonialism: on the one hand, its need to extract and make profit off the colonised space means it must arrive through deception, blackmail, and a lot of violence. On the other hand, there needs to be some kind of order, if not regimentation, for exploitative production to then take place.

There were only two flaws with this argument. First, most of north and northeastern Uganda were anything but secure, let alone peaceful, for the first nearly two decades of the NRM period. Second, it is the NRM regime that has gone on to facilitate the robbing, extortion and mugging of the entire Ugandan society of their historically accumulated wealth by removing all remaining barriers to foreign capitalist looting.

Many could not see it then, in the main. “Kasita twebaka ku ttulo” (at least we get to sleep now) emerged as the smug, fatuous and deliberately disengaged response to any attempt to educate them about the new dictatorship being assembled in plain sight. The result is a society of economically and socially insecure, under-skilled, landless underemployed people whose plight has been articulated politically and musically by the very presidential candidate whose arrest sparked these disturbances. They certainly see it now.

So we are back to the stand-off set up in 1897, when the Anglican “order” first asserted itself by imposing a “treaty” on the throne of Buganda, using a two-day gunpoint ultimatum, in which tax revenue, control of weapons and trade routes had to be surrendered to the Imperial British East African Company. This anti-native coup d’état thus check-mated the intentions toward the Nile of other imperial powers: Leopold’s Belgium from its Congo base in the West, Arab expansionism from Sudan in the north, and even the more remote French, German and Italian speculations, embedded in the Catholic mission stations, and budding in military bases on the other side of Ethiopia, dreaming of an opportunity.

Whose violence, whose state?

The only violence the West will accept is violence carried out in its own interest, when it is replacing one regime with another, or when its chosen regime is keeping “order”.

The mass killings in 1966 did not deter Britain from protecting the new government until it also became dispensable. Likewise, after the 1971 coup that brought Colonel Idi Amin to power, the West enjoyed very warm relations with him until he chose the other side in the Cold War.

Britain was deeply involved in seeking to violently destabilise the 1979-1980 post-Amin Marxist-led coalition government, and finally succeeded in toppling it through Paulo Muwanga’s May 1980 coup, which was the stepping stone to returning Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party through the violent rigging of the December 1980 elections.

Britain then went on to heavily backstop the violence that the UPC government meted out to the population in an attempt to steady itself in power. When that government collapsed in June 1985, the West was faced with a choice of two purveyors of political violence: the Okello junta that had overthrown Obote, or the NRA/M, still recovering in western Uganda to where it had relocated following some better organised government offensives against it, just before the coup. Finally, the West settled on the NRA as its latest sweetheart, and after six months of heavy investment, January 1986 happened.

Like the original 1899 Anglican factional victory, it was sold as “Liberation” and “Peace”. In reality, it was the latest imposition of violent “order” by the real owners of the colony.

With the exception of Rwanda, Uganda is significantly smaller than any of the countries that border it. But these intense imperial maneuverings of over a century and half, plus her permanent presence in the commentaries of the Western media since the reign of Kabaka Muteesa I (r.1837-1884), betray an interest that far outweighs her relatively small size: again, the Nile headwaters, and all that flows from that physically, therefore economically, therefore strategically, therefore politically, and therefore militarily. The leadership of the NRM understood this intimately, and chose a side. And it was not the side of the native.

This is why, by contrast, any spontaneous or autonomous activity, especially one with a capacity for its own violence that cannot be imperially co-opted (as the NRA/M was) is brutally suppressed, as the NRM (now as a tool of the West) has done again and again with spontaneous outbursts, and before that in northern Uganda, to Buganda demonstrators, and to subjects of the Rwenzururu kingdom, as well as far beyond Uganda’s borders to “secure order” in the literal Eden, lying between the two Rift Valleys with the Nile at its centre, for the Empire.

In all such cases, the West has, and will, look away, after maybe a bit of anodyne hand-wringing, just as a memsahib would not want to know the gory details of exactly how her houseboy removed a rat from her kitchen, only that he did it effectively. She will even indulge in a bit of grumbling about how much of a mess he has left her kitchen in, in the process. But the critical thing is that she wanted the rat killed, and now it is dead. Good boy.

So, political agitation is one thing, an actual uprising is quite another. It does not matter what the issue is, the West will not tolerate an actual popular uprising in Africa. The natives must never develop the means to reclaim what was taken from them at gunpoint in 1897.

Certainly, the natives must be prevented from regaining control over the source of the Nile.

This is why we have almost been workshopped to death by donor activism – to learn how to express our political aspirations within the acceptable (which basically means ineffective) methods and language of political careerism. Once we step outside those boundaries, either spontaneously or otherwise, then Kakungulu’s death machine is activated, and people are killed like kitchen rats until “order” is restored.

So, political agitation is one thing, an actual uprising is quite another. It does not matter what the issue is, the West will not tolerate an actual popular uprising in Africa. The natives must never develop the means to reclaim what was taken from them at gunpoint in 1897.

This is why we can experience a mass killing in the middle of a general election campaign, and the elections will still carry on. It is because these are, in fact, two separate “political” processes being implemented: one to keep the political classes co-opted, and the other to keep the natives excluded.

Nothing valuable, beautiful or just can be built on such an iniquitous foundation.

We need to be clear: what we have had was never “peace”, but simply security for the Empire’s interests.

And without real peace, even that security will eventually disappear.

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Kalundi Serumaga is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.

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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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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Politics

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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