In front of the entrance of the Rivièra Maison furniture store in Utrecht stand two low garden tables made of teak. On sale, says the saleswoman, because the next season is already coming up. Where does the wood come from? “Oops,” she replies, “that is an unusual question.” She goes to the computer inside the shop and comes back out radiantly: “These tables are from India!” That sounds likely, because since 2013 exports of furniture from India to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Just like Rivièra Maison, a large chain with a hundred sales points in the Netherlands and six hundred worldwide, dozens of other Dutch companies source their teak products from India. While the country itself produces only a limited amount of teak, India is the world’s largest exporter of teak products.
In order to meet the enormous demand, India is importing more and more wood from other countries for processing into “Indian” furniture or other objects. Teak is a popular wood but difficult to obtain and whenever a fertile source of teak is restricted by international regulations, such as virgin forests in Thailand and Myanmar, India shifts its focus to new suppliers.
Today, much of the teak in India actually comes from the young East African state of South Sudan, a country where the trade in timber is barely regulated. South Sudanese wood is not prohibited on the European market, but the seller must be able to prove that it comes from a legal source. The chance of that happening is small: 90 per cent of South Sudanese logging is illegal. Any wood that reaches European stores is therefore almost always illegal.
The citizens of poverty-stricken South Sudan are excluded from the timber trade which is dominated by foreign companies whose little domestic revenues go into the pockets of corrupt politicians and rebels who until 2020 used it to finance a destructive internal war. Using trade data, social media forums and discussions with importers, we followed the potential route that looted South Sudanese timber takes to Europe via India. We pretended to be traders and proposed one illegal deal after another, often on the basis of forged documents. Despite the introduction of the European Timber Act in 2013, which should have ended the sale of illegally harvested timber, it still appears to be easy to get illegal timber onto the Dutch market.
“Sir we get the supply from Sudan. The certificate of origin we can make Uganda, Congo or whatever you want”, responds our contact from Pratham Exim Solutions when we approach him in a Facebook group and present the strict European guidelines. “We pay some money to an official and get the origin papers we want.” We can choose from five East African countries of origin: Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi or Rwanda. Of those, only Congo and Tanzania actually have teak plantations.
Various Facebook groups show how India gets its teak. Timber traders, mainly from India, offer large quantities of teak of dubious origin. Posing as traders, we ask if someone can deliver timber from South Sudan to the Netherlands. Someone can. “We get teak from Sudan that comes via Uganda, where we fill the containers in Kampala before it leaves for the port of Mombasa. From there we ship it to India or another country,” says the owner of Pratham Exim Solutions when asked which route the wood will take on its way to Europe.
At our request, he draws up a plan to ship our consignment of wood first to India, and from there to Rotterdam. India, which also has teak plantations, is in principle a legitimate country of origin. “We have good contacts at the Indian Chamber of Commerce, so the papers are not a problem,” assures the merchant. The chat provides evidence of forged labels of origin and a detailed plan to sell wood from South Sudan via India as wood from India. We cut off the conversation just before closing the deal.
Export data of timber consignments from East Africa to India for 2019 shows more than a hundred companies that demonstrably ship South Sudanese teak to India. We bought this data from the Seair, an Indian company that collects import and export data at Indian customs. It concerns five hundred teak shipments totaling twenty thousand cubic meters, with an official value of twelve million euros – not including the inevitable bribes. We also count another 120 parties from Kenya and Uganda that most likely also come from South Sudan. South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated: as soon as a South Sudanese party enters a timber market in the nearby Ugandan capital of Kampala, the freight becomes “Ugandan”. A number of these companies also say they do business with Europe.
Our data is just the tip of the iceberg. According to calculations by the American research firm C4ADS, more than 100,000 tons of teak from South Sudan go on the world market every year. Teak, “the king of woods,” is native to Southeast Asia and is particularly popular in the boat building and furniture industries because of its weather resistance and “stability”, as traders call it. The limited and more selective logging in primary forests in recent decades has driven up the price.
While luxury yacht builders continue to prefer “primal teak”, plantation wood from Africa is an inexpensive alternative for furniture builders. South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for felling. Usually, plantation teak is relatively well regulated, but this is not the case in South Sudan. The United Nations reports that there are virtually no legal logging concessions, not even for large companies, and that there is no supervision. In addition, replanting trees is a prerequisite for felling in regulated plantations but this does not happen in South Sudan.
South Sudan itself does not issue labels of origin because the timber market is not yet nationally regulated.
Besides oil, teak is the young state’s most valuable raw material, were it not for the fact that the lion’s share of the logging takes place below the radar of the tax authorities. According to the UN, the country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually. In reality, only one to two million comes in.
On the Internet, the trade in Sudanese timber is less disguised. There are photos of traders proudly posing next to packed containers on Facebook. “Good Sudan prices” is the caption. Pixelated number plates reveal the Ugandan heritage of the individuals. Kenyan journalist John-Allan Namu went undercover to investigate the South Sudanese timber market for his documentary series The Profiteers in 2018. Namu shows how illegally felled teak from South Sudan is mixed with teak from some legal concessions in surrounding regions at a timber market in the Ugandan capital Kampala—the most common method used to conceal the origin of the wood according to Interpol. The fully loaded containers leave Kampala for their next destination, the Kenyan port city of Mombasa, where they are hoisted onto cargo ships. An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India, where it is cut or processed into furniture.
“South Sudan has only existed since 2011 and has had little time and capacity to regulate the timber market,” Namu said from his office in Nairobi. “The market is largely in the hands of foreign companies who pay generous bribes to government officials and rebels who protect loggers.” The money has been used to finance a civil war since 2013, Namu said. That ethnic conflict between the two largest populations in the country came to an end in early 2020 yet there is still fighting in some regions. The population is very poor and the government is among the most corrupt in the world.
Somewhere in the Lopik industrial area of Utrecht in the Netherlands the smell of wet wood is in the air. Wet angelim vermelho, a tropical wood, gives off a sweet-sour scent. Ipe, itauba, massaranduba and twenty other tropical woods are also cut here. But teak is missing. “If you trade in it, you just have blood on your hands,” says timber merchant Albert Oudenaarden. Oudenaarden is the director of Van den Berg Hardhout, a wholesaler who only trades in wood that has been certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) as sustainable. He can trace every plank of wood in his timber yard to a specific place in the jungle.
Oudenaarden can talk for hours about the importance of wood and the controlled felling of trees which creates space in the jungle and is good for biodiversity if done right. Never remove too much in one place, cut safely and in a controlled manner, do not go into the forest with big trucks, leave important places for animals and the local population alone. His dream? To have only sustainably harvested wood on the Dutch market. Since 2013, however, he has seen the demand for his sustainable wood stagnate. This is a bitter consequence of the new European wood law. “Many companies are increasingly ignoring FSC. The law is intended to combat illegal logging, but whether it does so, I have my doubts about it. In any case, legality says nothing at all about the sustainability of a party.”
South Sudan has the largest and oldest teak plantations in Africa: they were planted in the 1940s and are now “ripe” for cutting.
According to Oudenaarden, the law takes the wind out of the sails of sustainable wood. Furniture makers confirm this. “Such a label only costs money. The products comply with the wood law, so it is good, right?”
The European Union introduced the European Union Timber Regulation in 2013. Anyone who puts wood products on the market must research the entire trade chain and take measures to stem illegality in the chain. An authority has been designated in every European country to supervise the timber trade. Years of lobbying by environmental organisations preceded the introduction of the European Timber Regulation but seven years after its introduction, the scheme has turned out to be much less effective than hoped.
First of all, there are the exceptions: a multitude of products such as chairs, wooden coffins and musical instruments are not covered by the regulation. A teak garden chair made from legal, illegal or wood of unclear origin does not contravene the law. A second weakness is the susceptibility to fraud. Anyone who imports products that do comply with the regulation – table tops, cabinets, whole tree trunks – must have a lot of documents proving the exact, legal origin of the wood.
But that is only a “paper reality” says timber merchant Oudenaarden. You can say anything in documents. Indeed, we easily find a fictitious label of origin from the Indian Chamber of Commerce. Tampering with labels is common practice in the international timber market. Previous research shows, for example, that illegal coniferous wood from the Ukrainian Carpathians ended up in the Netherlands with false papers in 2016, and wood from Latin America and Southeast Asia is also “laundered” more than once.
Third is the weak control over this fraud, including in the Netherlands. Because the Timber Act does not regulate the import but only the marketing of timber, the Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is the supervisory authority in the Netherlands. The body makes company visits based on risk indicators such as the country of origin, product type or processing country. According to critics, that role should have been assigned to customs. “The border is the only place where you can really say something about the origin of wood,” says Peter Hartog, head of the environmental team of the Rotterdam police. “Once in the warehouse of a company, it is impossible to say whether that one pile of paper actually belongs to that one wood lot.”
The country could generate at least US$50 million in tax revenues from the timber sector annually.
“You better be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker,” says Hartog in his office in Hoogvliet, where the depot houses confiscated snakeskins and swordfish. “Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties,” he sums up. Since 2006, Hartog has completed five investigations into the illegal timber trade. There should and could have been more if the work was less international in character and the capacity of supervisory authorities somewhat higher.
The Netherlands has one of the five largest timber ports in Europe. Customs, which check for taxes and CITES – a list of internationally protected flora and fauna – has to deal with 75,000 containers of wood entering the port of Rotterdam every year, and the NVWA must supervise at least 5,000 traders. Other matters are also given higher priority in the investigation by the police. “Then calculate the chance of being caught,” says Hartog.
The European Union is only as strong as its weakest link. Under the Timber Act, only the first trader to place a prohibited batch on the market is punishable. And there are quite a few weak links, the European Commission concluded in an evaluation of the law in 2016. Most countries made far too few human and financial resources available, “which makes the deterrent effect of the enforcement activities rather limited”. Dutch customs acknowledges that they only employ a few people who can distinguish one type of wood from another, and two inspectors work at the NVWA.
In 2017, the authority imposed a conditional fine of 20,000 euros per imported cubic meter on the Boogaerdt company for illegally marketing teak from Myanmar. This is one of the few cases dealt with by the NVWA in recent years. Despite the fine, Royal Deck in Livorno, another company owned by the Boogaerdt family, still imports from Myanmar. A video that was until recently posted on the company’s website shows large shipments of timber in the port of the Asian country, and proudly advertises the timber’s provenance.
Myanmar is a notoriously high-risk country when it comes to the origin of wood. The Netherlands has blacklisted it because it is impossible to distinguish illegally from legally obtained timber in the country due to fraud. Yet it is openly sold in several places in the Netherlands. The fact that wood from forbidden countries of origin still ends up in Europe also illustrates the ease with which teak of more diffuse origin – such as South Sudan – can land in Europe.
Traditional East Asian countries of origin are increasingly restricting the export of teak. India, a country with a strong woodworking culture but too little wood of its own, drew its shortages from the jungles of Myanmar until 2014 when that country was issued an international export ban due to the widespread corruption and illegal logging involved in the sector. Indian merchants have since been importing from East Africa. A simple calculation explains the fraud: Indian forests today can only meet 5 per cent of the demand annually. The rest is imported from Africa and Latin America. Ninety per cent of the supply from East Africa comes from South Sudan. According to Indian sources, it cannot be determined where the wood on the Indian market was harvested. When asked where they get their wood from, Indian teak suppliers are curt: “We don’t do that business.” Or they hang up the phone.
An estimated 73 per cent of South Sudanese teak ends up in India where it is cut or processed into furniture.
Since 2013, Indian exports to the Netherlands have quadrupled. Some of the teak products arrive in the Netherlands through the Alibaba online store. Some of the companies we approach openly admit that they source their teak from East African countries such as South Sudan to market them on the European market as a “product of India”. “We deliver to Europe by land, air or sea. Never had any problems with it, “says Saurabh Gupta of the Indian company Medieval Edge.
In data on the trade flows between India, the Netherlands and Belgium, we find 161 consignments of teak products that were exported from India to the Low Countries between September 2018 and September 2020. Sometimes these are orders from private individuals, or products not intended for further sale: a large elephant, wooden horses for the furnishing of a pharmacy – “a teak temple for the home” bought at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Three quarters go to furniture chains and wholesalers who sell them on to local retailers.
Rivièra Maison’s furniture buyer Gideon Manger does not want to believe his saleswoman’s answer. He must have provided incorrect information: “I would never import teak from India. We only work with certified wood from Indonesia. We think that is very important.” To reinforce his story, he sends a screenshot of a certificate from the factory in Indonesia.
That remains to be seen though. In export data, we see fourteen orders – making up a total of almost twelve hundred products made of teak and mango wood – from Rivièra Maison to a company in Moradabad, a city east of Delhi. Teak from India, and therefore of unclear origin. In an official response, Rivièra Maison says that the products ordered in India, although made of teak, are exempted by the European wood law and can therefore still be sold.
The furniture store is certainly not the only one that purchases in India. For example, furniture wholesaler Hazenkamp also sells teak products: wine racks, coffee tables, clocks and lanterns. Where does that come from? “Yes, it will all be India, it is produced there. I dare not say where the wood comes from. Yes, I think it comes from India.” But isn’t he legally obliged to investigate? The employee ends the conversation.
“Better to be an environmental criminal than a drug trafficker. Equally high earnings, minimal chance of being caught, low penalties”
The NVWA is aware of the existence of South Sudanese teak, the service says, but has not found it on the Dutch market in the past five years. According to the authority, most of the inspected companies have the correct documents, but she admits that this does not say everything. A report by Deloitte on behalf of Agriculture Minister Carola Schouten shows that the NVWA does indeed miss the big picture: it only carries out 50 wood inspections per year, often at the same companies. “It is first and foremost up to the business community itself to comply with the rules,” the NVWA said in a response. “After all, it is in everyone’s interest to combat illegal deforestation.”
Nyarayek Moboic recently graduated from the University of Amsterdam as a lawyer and is determined to do something for her native country. She views the logging in South Sudan with sorrow. She fled the civil war in her country with her family in the 1990s. Relatives who have stayed in South Sudan see one loaded truck after another driving out of the jungle.
Indonesia introduced its own quality marks more than ten years ago and obliged exporters to process logged wood in the country first to maintain employment. Moboic has something like that in mind. She hopes to acquire a legal logging concession in the country so that her enterprising cousin can make furniture out of it to ship in a direct line to the Netherlands. “Unique furniture with local influences. But for people like my cousin, it is difficult to get teak. The only option is to buy it from foreigners while it grows in their country. The wood leaves South Sudan. Nothing is left for the Sudanese themselves.”
In collaboration with journalist Ankita Anand, this article is part of the Money Trail project supported by the Nationale Postcode Loterij.
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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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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