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The History and Uncertain Future of Macadamia Farming in Kenya

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The macadamia sector in Kenya faces many challenges that can be overcome through supportive policies and regulations.

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The History and Uncertain Future of Macadamia Farming in Kenya
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The Government in Kenya issued a blanket ban on the export of raw nuts in 2009 to allow local processors to gather enough materials for job creation in this labour intensive sector.

However, both the county and national governments have consistently failed to put in place all the necessary measures to support the macadamia sub-sector, which is rapidly emerging as an alternative cash crop to the declining coffee and tea sectors in the Mt. Kenya region. The crop has gained traction to non-traditional growing areas such as the Rift Valley and Western regions.

Although the macadamia nuts sub-sector has grown on its own since the ban was put in place, fears are now emerging that the country is likely to lose its grip on this niche market to new entrants due to the low quality of the nuts we have been producing.

In 2009, when Kenya banned the export of raw nuts, it had a firm grip on this niche market. There were only four other nut producing countries in the world –  Australia, South Africa, Kenya and Hawaii in the United States, with Kenya supplying about 20 per cent of the total global demand.

Between 90 and 95 per cent of Kenya’s macadamia is produced for export. Key export destinations for Kenyan macadamia are the US, the European Union, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Canada. This year, demand for Kenya’s macadamia globally declined by 40 per cent, according to the processors’ estimates, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

New entrants who threaten Kenya’s global market include China, Guatemala, Malawi, Vietnam, Colombia, New Zealand, Mozambique, Brazil, Paraguay and Swaziland. In total, 15 countries in the world have joined the producing club in the last decade.

With funding and support of the Chinese government, the International Macadamia Research and Development Center, established in Lincang, China, now holds more market potential for macadamias than any other country on the planet, recording an 11-fold increase in macadamia consumption between 2012 and 2018.

A global macadamia nut symposium held in China two years ago, which was poised to be held in Kenya next year but cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic,  noted that as the global macadamia industry continues to grow, the need to deliver exceptional quality nuts will be more critical than ever.

The Nut Processors Association of Kenya (NutPAK)’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Charles Muigai, said that this is where the biggest challenge for Kenya’s market competitiveness in the global arena lies because farmers are not faithful to producing quality nuts due to the low support the sector receives from the government and other actors.

With funding and support of the Chinese government, the International Macadamia Research and Development Center, established in Lincang, China, now holds more market potential for macadamias than any other country on the planet, recording an 11-fold increase in macadamia consumption between 2012 and 2018.

Value Chain Analysis for Macadamia Nuts from Kenya 2020, a report of the Netherlands’ Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing Countries, cited climate change, the impact of pests and diseases, poor good agricultural practices (GAP), lack of access to inputs, use of unsuitable or old macadamia varieties and immature harvesting as Kenya’s main undoing.

At a critical point of transition, following the ban, there was no functioning formal association of macadamia farmers. In 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) initiated the creation of Macadamia Growers Association of Kenya (MGAK), which has remained without an office or a budget.

The macadamia sector, unlike tea and coffee, has evolved without any regulation or policy support from the government. The only main intervention was in 2009, when a ban was effected and again in 2018 when the ban was anchored in legislation.

History of macadamia farming in Kenya 

The production of macadamia nuts in Kenya traces its history from 1944 when a European settler called Bob Harries introduced the crop from Australia in his estate near Thika town for ornamental and household consumption purposes.

He would, two decades later, found Bob Harries Ltd. to invest in the widespread expansion of the crop by introducing two key macadamia types – M. Integrifolia and M. Tetraphylla – and other hybrids from Hawaii and California.

In 1968, he grafted his own seedling nurseries to create a source for non-African estate owners and African smallholder farmers in Central Kenya’s coffee growing zones, namely, Embu, Meru, Kirinyaga and Thika.

He also initiated a campaign to have the government commercialise the crop. A feasibility study carried out in 1974 by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) that gave a nod to the viability of the sector convinced the government to support macadamia processing and marketing.

The government facilitated the creation of a joint venture between Japanese investors led by Yoshiyuki Sato and a Kenyan, Pius Ngugi, in setting up the Kenya Nuts Company (KNC), which today still runs the factory in Thika.

Sato had founded and run a textile factory in Nairobi since 1960 while Ngugi, a large-scale macadamia and coffee farmer from Thika, was in search of a market for his nuts.

The company would build a modern processing plant and establish its own macadamia plantations at an initial nuclear farm of about 400ha. It also set up a nursery for the propagation of adapted and grafted seedlings to supply out-growers.

By 1975, the company was processing nuts from its own estate as well as from other out-growers. It enjoyed a monopoly purchase right for in-shell nuts, sourcing 90 per cent of these from 140 smallholder coffee cooperative societies, as well as 47 additional buying centres.

Farmers delivered the harvest to cooperatives and collection centres and got a receipt with a pre-agreed price per kilogram. KNC would then collect the nuts when enough quantity has been bunched, and transfer the payments to the cooperative banks, where farmers collected cash by producing their receipts. Cooperative would earn a 10 per cent commission.

Japan continued to support the macadamia sector for over twenty years, culminating in the construction of the National Horticultural Research Centre where agronomists focused more on grafted seedling varieties. KNC multiplied these in their nurseries and by the time the Japanese left in 1997, it had distributed over 1.5 million seedlings.

Like the cashew sector, the macadamia sector was also affected by the liberalisation of economy. Being part of the private sector, KNC could not be privatised, which salvaged it from the decay that followed the cashew sector.

However, liberalisation accelerated domestic competition. In 1994, Peter Munga, the Equity Bank founder, opened a macadamia processing factory called Farm Nut Co. in Maragua, Muranga district. He had made some foray into buying coffee from farmers and realised that they were also selling macadamia at low prices. He decided to venture into marketing and processing the nuts.

Unlike his well-established rival, his firm lacked logistical infrastructure and links to cooperatives. The idea of brokers, who had played a marginal role by only collecting macadamia from distant locations, came in handy. With the entry of Farm Nut, the role of middlemen became predominant.

Like the cashew sector, the macadamia sector was also affected by the liberalisation of economy. Being part of the private sector, KNC could not be privatised, which salvaged it from the decay that followed the cashew sector.

Essentially, brokers would go directly to the farmers, offer better and direct prices than the cooperatives had done. Consequently, this significantly reduced farmers’ transaction costs of bringing nuts to collection centres as well as collecting their payments from banks.

Also, reduced volumes from the cooperatives increased processors’ transactional costs. It became more convenient for them to deal with the middlemen, and by the early 2000s, the cooperatives’ role in the macadamia supply chain diminished.

In the early 1990s and when the macadamia prices passed Sh30 mark per kilo in 1997, farmers in Central Kenya became more interested in macadamia farming due also to a fall in coffee prices. Production multiplied five-fold within six years only, crossing the 10,000 tonnes threshold in 1998.

The Chinese connection 

A dramatic shift in the industry would come in the early 2000s when China became a mass consumer of the nuts. The emergence of a growing middle class in China with an appetite for in-shell nuts and container ships increasingly docking in Mombasa, demanding to return with loaded cargo, tempted Chinese traders to venture into the export of raw macadamia nuts from the country.

The first Chinese in-shell exporter was a Mr Yang who contracted brokers in Embu in 2004. They transversed the region with loudspeakers mounted on their vans offering Sh40 (US$ 0.48) – twice what processors had offered. They would a year later spread tentacles to Meru, where they remained for close to five years.

Local processors would buy nuts mainly from Kiambu, Muranga, Kirinyaga, and Nyeri, where Kikuyu processors had established processing units and created networks with local communities who they hired for factory jobs. This helped to lock the Chinese out of these regions.

Estimates by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service indicated that nearly 60 per cent of macadamia had been exported in-shell in 2008, implying that exporters had been able to purchase most of the crop from Embu and Meru. This posed a huge threat, bringing processors together to push the government to ban the export of raw nuts that finally came on 16th June 2009.

With the exit of the Chinese, and the creation of a processors’ and farmers’ associations, there was hope that the industry would get organised and get the necessary support.

Far from it. Both the farmers and processors would soon be left to their own devices, competing among each other to fight the Chinese who were still smuggling nuts out of Kenya. However, the competition and the need to create more volume saw processors heighten production five-fold in the last decade to reach close to 50,000 metric tonnes last year. They also grew in number from 5 to over 30, a move that saw farmers get an unprecedented Sh200 a kilo despite complains emerging that the quality did not justify this price.

This year, the sluggish global demand has driven processors away from the field, leaving behind brokers who are buying the nuts for as low as Sh50 a kilo. Joshua Muriira, the Chairman of the Meru Macadamia Farmers Association, said that the absence of processors is deliberate since they have conspired to offer Sh85 a kilo and it has nothing to do with the COVID 19.

The idea of an export ban has failed to fade away in Meru and Embu, where people still believe that were the Chinese buyers still available, things would be different. They started protesting from the onset when the prices dropped from a high of Sh100 a kilo to between Sh40 and Sh60 after the Chinese exit.

The processors blamed the poor prices on brokers and the resultant high share of immature nuts. A narrative was also pushed that if they started selling the nuts to processors directly – rather than via brokers – good prices would return.

After the first ban in 2009, the Chinese would a year later successfully lobby the new agriculture minister, Sally Kosgei, to lift the ban on raw nut exports for three months on 28 May 2010. The official rationale for the lifting the ban was “to facilitate the mop-up of the excess raw nuts with farmers”.

On 15 December 2010, when Kosgei yet again decided to lift the ban (Gazette notice No. 16229) for a period of over six months until 30 June 2011, quoting the same rationale, this time, NutPAK successfully challenged this in the High Court on 21 December 2010.

It was only in 2016 that the MP for Maragua, a region not known to produce macadamia in plenty, introduced a motion against the ban in Parliament, arguing it was hurting farmers. The house’s agriculture committee rejected the petition on the grounds that it was not in the interests of the industry.

There was evidence of continued presence of the Chinese in Kenya, even after the ban. On February 2017, seven Chinese macadamia buyers were arrested in Meru for allegedly doing business in the country without the required licences and documents. Embu and Meru farmers protested against their arrest in March 2017.

On one occasion, during the gubernatorial party primaries for the 2017 election, the gubernatorial candidate for Embu, Senator Lenny Kivuti, used the opportunity and joined the protests in Mutunduri in Embu North sub-county, accusing his opponent and current governor, Martin Wambora, of colluding with the domestic processor, Privam Nuts, and saying it was wrong for the police to “harass the foreigners because the latter were offering a better price to the farmers”.

On February 2017, seven Chinese macadamia buyers were arrested in Meru for allegedly doing business in the country without the required licences and documents. Embu and Meru farmers protested against their arrest in March 2017.

There were protests against the ban throughout 2018. In late January 2018, prior to the legal opening of the harvesting season on 20 February, the government, through the Nuts and Oil Crop Directorate, again arrested and deported eleven Chinese macadamia buyers in Meru who were buying at the stellar price of Sh170, and whose arrest was by opposed by several Meru MPs, farmers and brokers.

Areas of intervention 

The main opportunity for yield improvement, according to the Centre for the Promotion of Imports from Developing countries report, lies with supporting extension service providers, such as the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Organisation (KALRO) and the Agriculture and Food Authority (AFA), to increase farmers’ capacities and to multiply and disseminate high-yielding macadamia seedlings that are suited to the different macadamia growing regions of Kenya.

There are two main areas of intervention for quality improvement. The first involves supporting processors who wish to obtain loans to buy crops in advance, thereby addressing farmers’ need for quick cash. The second is the implementation of region-relevant harvesting moratoria.

Upstream traceability of Kenyan macadamia is severely challenged by the large number of smallholder farmers and independent buying agents. Small plantations typify Kenya’s production system as opposed to other producers like China, South Africa and Australia, which have large plantation farming. Around 200,000 small farms in Kenya currently produce an estimated 42,500 tonnes of in-shell nuts.

Adopting traceability systems, some of which are part of mobile cash applications, could help in addressing this problem.

There are two main areas of intervention for quality improvement. The first involves supporting processors who wish to obtain loans to buy crops in advance, thereby addressing farmers’ need for quick cash. The second is the implementation of region-relevant harvesting moratoria.

Moreover, support should go to the creation of a registry of farmers, including data such as landholding size and age, number of macadamia trees and macadamia varieties and traders. This registry should be governed and accessed by members of the sector’s associations and AFA.

Communication and dialogue among macadamia stakeholders is lacking. Often, conflicting interests among actors lead to rivalry.

To address this, sector associations should establish, adopt and enforce codes of conduct to regulate the practices of sector players. Dialogue and transparency should be the ruling principles of this code of conduct. Moreover, all actors should discuss a multi-stakeholder strategy to address the challenges facing the macadamia sector.

Although some processors have links to European markets, the notion prevails among EU buyers that Kenyan macadamia nuts are of inferior quality. Moreover, processors regard the EU market regulations as more stringent than those of the US.

To address poor EU market access, the creation and marketing of a Kenyan macadamia brand should be explored.

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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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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 or 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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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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