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The Elephant in the Chinese Room

6 min read.

After considering China’s long-term approach to economic and social development, even the most ungenerous critics of the Asian country’s international partnerships strategy will probably concede that the idea that, in case of loan defaults, they would compromise the credibility of the Belt and Road Initiative around the world through depriving Africa of the expressways, public buildings and hydropower plants they are helping to put up, is more than a little far-fetched.

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The Elephant in the Chinese Room
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It has become commonplace in Western media for reports about the “African indebtedness crisis” to turn into protracted exercises in China-bashing. Therefore it was only to be expected that in the aftermath of the recent G20 summit meeting in Riyadh, yet another round of similarly sanctimonious articles, op-eds and videos should come to light. Naturally enough, the fact that the G20 nations (China included) agreed on an initial proposal of debt relief to developing countries, extending up to the second half of 2021, is not viewed in such reports as a step in the right direction but, rather, as a confirmation that their claims that African countries are being crushed with debt by “irresponsible lending” were right all along.

A case in point is the piece by the otherwise circumspect German broadcaster Deutsche Welle – DW.  It starts by saying that according to unnamed “critics”, the financial aid instruments employed by China in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have left a number of African countries “overloaded” with debt. This could have been a perfectly ordinary journalistic approach to the subject, if the other side of the story, that is, the viewpoint of those who see merit in the Chinese initiative, was also considered at some point.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.

The report opens by stating that the railway link in Kenya between  the capital Nairobi and the coastal town of Mombasa – entirely financed and built by China – “has been called the road to nowhere.”  This derogatory epithet is offered to the public without any explanation or justification concerning its origin and validity, and the piece never mentions that Mombasa happens to be one of Kenya’s main tourist hubs. Interestingly enough, the report does mention that it is a port city, which in and of itself seems to negate the “road to nowhere” jibe since, in terms of simple logistics, building a railway between a country’s landlocked capital city and its coast is not usually considered as a particularly odd endeavour.

It has become commonplace in Western media for reports about the “African indebtedness crisis” to turn into protracted exercises in China-bashing

What is perhaps the most outstanding feature, not only of this particular piece, but also of an important portion of mainstream media coverage about BRI in Africa, is the obvious one-sidedness of the arguments. DW’s report, for one, focuses on the amount of loans given to African countries – a total mentioned as being of around US$ 100 billion, but which in reality is now closer to US$ 145 billion – in an attempt to stress how large a burden it is, and then proceed to use language such as “countries crippled under the weight of the money they owe to China” or “Africa’s unsustainable debt load.”

Yet the proverbial (and, in this case, geographically apt) elephant in the room is never really addressed: how is all this changing life for Africans? What is the money being used for? As it turns out, all of the resources mobilised under BRI partnerships are being used to put in place large infrastructure projects, a key, concrete factor that, historically, has hindered Africa’s efforts in search of social and economic development at every turn. Right from the start, when it endorses the view that the railway linking Kenya’s capital to its main port is a “road to nowhere,” DW’s report already lets us know that it will not address the issue of why – or if – US$ 145 billion in infrastructure projects can make a decisive difference to Africa’s future development and prosperity.

From 2008 onwards, in the years following beginning of what has become known as “the Great Recession,” Western commentators were for once forced to acknowledge the existence of the Wall St. self-delusion bubble, inside which twenty-somethings running convoluted but unrealistic mathematical models in credit-rating agencies validated the market value of soon-to-be-bankrupt financial institutions, while flagging as dire risks the economies of countries that would eventually emerge unscathed from the New-York-London-made mess.

Today, ten years after, the pendulum swinged back fully, as the media once more adopts the financiers’ outdated algorithm as the yardstick for everything under the sun: next quarter’s profits. That is the thinking behind yet another sobriquet given early on by the DW piece to the Kenyan railway, to wit, that of a “money-losing” initiative. The concept that an infrastructure project implemented by two sovereign governments under the aegis of a G-to-G agreement can have any other nature than that of a “money-making” venture is entirely alien to this logic. Long-term and strategic considerations are seldom, if ever, factored in; and, clearly, real-world impacts and legacies have no place in the model. Outside of this slanted and narrow analytical perspective, the selective blindness concerning the transformative impacts that US$ 145 billion in roads, power transmission lines, railways, hospitals and power generation plants will have in an impoverished continent such as Africa simply cannot be accounted for.

Of course, the relationship between creditors and debtors in international finance is never a one-dimensional one, and can be potentially “crippling”. What happened in Argentina in recent years provides us with just such an example. Having struggled for a long time before finally managing to repay the IMF in 2005, Argentina saw its foreign debt explode to a record level – even in emerging economies’ terms – in the wake of the election of Mauricio Macri as the country’s president in late 2015.

Over 90% of Chinese loans to Africa were allocated to transport, power, water, health, education and other social infrastructure

The new government quickly introduced strong exchange deregulation policies, whose immediate effect was an increase in capital flight, allowing wealthy Argentineans and financial institutions operating in the South American country to transfer increasingly large funds abroad.  As international conditions deteriorated, the carry trade circuit that was bringing speculative capital inflows to Argentina was disrupted, giving rise to a steep balance-of-payments crisis that would only be partially abated in June 2018, when the IMF agreed to extend the country a US$ 50 billion stand-by loan – the largest one in the institution’s history.

The policies adopted by the Macri government and the consequent return of his country to IMF dependency become all the more egregious when one considers the strong political rejection of the Fund’s oversight of their economy on the part of public opinion. Yet, no outcry over this toxic surge in Argentinean indebtedness – or over the government measures that were directly responsible for it – arose in the international media back then. One is led to wonder whether this would have been the case if Argentina’s creditor was China.

It is worth noting, however, that the reason Argentina was effectively “crippled” by its foreign debt is twofold. First, the political leadership decided of their own accord to enable financial speculators to move assets freely out of the country when official international reserves were at historically low levels. Second, after Argentina “stormed back to the international capital markets” – as ‘Euromoney’ glowingly reported at the time – there was no addition the country’s productive capacity nor to its infrastructure to show for all the voluminous new debt.

One would be hard-pressed to draw any meaningful parallels between the Argentinean situation and that of Africa’s debt to China. To begin with, BRI projects in Africa are being carried out under diverse circumstances in a number of different countries. As a result, the sort of wholesale criticism often found in Western media concerning those projects tend to make use of sweeping generalisations that bear little relation to actual facts. Indeed, given that the exact terms of financial contracts with the Chinese are seldom disclosed, in almost every case inferences surmising that those conditions must be “crippling” and unfavourable ones say more about the bias of their authors than about the reality of the situation in Africa.

From a strictly financial point of view, both the present availability of foreign exchange reserves and the prospect of future export growth differ considerably among the African countries involved. Also – and crucially – BRI loans are of a fundamentally different nature from Argentina’s mainly short-term debt, since the former typically have considerable grace periods and very long maturities. Last but not least, all debt associated with BRI projects will, by definition, produce permanent legacies in terms of adding to the infrastructure of the countries. This means that, given the nature of the projects being carried out on the ground in Africa through the partnership with China, in future Africans will find themselves, unlike Argentina at the end of its debt cycle, in possession of at least US$ 145 billion worth of fundamental infrastructure they previously lacked.

The policies adopted by the Macri government and the consequent return of his country to IMF dependency become all the more egregious when one considers the strong political rejection of the Fund’s oversight of their economy on the part of public opinion.

The analysis of the Argentinean case suggests that any lasting harmful effects to African countries will greatly depend on the extent to which present-day and future African leaders decide to accept detrimental terms in their dealings with China, on the one hand; and whether China’s leaders will seek to use their power as creditors to chew up and spit out their BRI partners in pursuit of immediate profit, leaving them to cope with long-term, structural crises as they move on to greener pastures.

This scenario is undoubtedly reminiscent of what Western creditors did in developing countries, repeatedly, over the past fifty years. So much so, in fact, that having Western media now ascribe this conduct to China looks suspiciously like a case of projecting one’s own faults onto others. So far, however, the Chinese have not given any indication that they might leave unfinished the crucial projects they are engaged in internationally on account of financial difficulties. Neither seem they likely to seek to impose IMF-like conditionalities leading to “austerity” and stagnation in debtor countries.

After considering China’s long-term approach to economic and social development, even the most ungenerous critics of the Asian country’s international partnerships strategy will probably concede that the idea that, in case of loan defaults, they would compromise the credibility of the Belt and Road Initiative around the world through depriving Africa of the expressways, public buildings and hydropower plants they are helping to put up, is more than a little far-fetched. And stark warnings about the negative consequences of some fifty countries underwriting a grand total of US$ 145 billion in long-term debt for infrastructure investment, ring particularly hollow when coming from those who, not five years ago, could not praise highly enough the policies that drove a single country to increase its foreign debt by more than US$ 110 billion in exchange for, precisely, nothing at all.

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L. E. Melin is writer and a political and social commentator.

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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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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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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