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Voting into Irrelevance

7 min read.

Elections will be properly respected when the society in question has been atomised into a collection of self-interested individuals dependent on the state.

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Voting into Irrelevance
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The old saying that “if voting really changed anything no government would ever permit it”, perhaps needs to be updated.

True, voting has not really changed the governing systems in much of the East African region, despite elections being held fairly regularly in most of our countries.

Kenya’s economy is dominated by commodity cartels whose preservation and prosperity also depends on controlling political processes. Every election can also be understood as a bruising negotiation between these players over who will hold the levers of which economic sector. The evidence is in the outcomes: no matter who is in State House, the economic rights and conditions of ordinary Kenyan remain poor.

Tanzania may have had six different presidents since independence, but it has only ever had one political party in power: Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which is constituted mainly of the independence-era Tanganyika African National Union, TANU, and a smaller party from Zanzibar. And whatever credits for creating national unity and building infrastructure that party may claim, the fact is that being in an opposition party can be very dangerous for its members.

As for poor old Uganda, we have only had violent changes of government. That is, until 1986, since when we now have violent retention of the reins of government. This is where elections become interesting: due to its overwhelming military strength (by which I mean that the “national” army in fact remains the enforcing organ of the ruling National Resistance Movement party that brought it to power), any opposition candidate is actually up against not just a ruling party, but also its armed wing.

As we speak, the Ugandan electoral process is still ongoing in two of the usual ways. The first is the courts being swamped by a slew of petitions from those who have been pronounced losers (which is not the same thing as being the actual loser) at various levels, but usually at the parliamentary level. There is also always the Big One: the court petition by the first presidential runner-up (as announced), challenging the presidential results (as declared). There is a legally defined time limit within which these cases must be submitted, heard and adjudicated.

But running parallel with the court proceedings is the state security operation to manage the protests of those who supported the presidential candidate who was pronounced the loser between the time when the results were announced by the Electoral Commission in mid-January, and the swearing in of the new President (who in Uganda is also always the  incumbent) in mid-May. The established tradition is to have the main declared loser trailed, confined to their home, and generally harassed during this period. This was the four-time experience of former opposition strongman Dr Kizza Besigye.

Where matters seem to have escalated is in the targeted abductions, illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings of many supporters of the new opposition figurehead, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi. As many as 300 young Ugandans (the latest known one being just 15 years old), some of them activists, many not, may find themselves at one time or another on this macabre conveyor belt.

Often invoking the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, or even the last Rwanda Genocide, the regime usually offers vague and often contradictory justifications for this, and the ambassadors of the various supporting donor countries spend some time frowning and wringing their hands.

There is another kind of echo. After the disastrously-handled 1980 elections (that saw even the person in charge of the electoral body at the time flee into exile), the declaration of Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress party as the victor was followed by a massive witch-hunt of activists, campaign managers and, generally, vocal supporters of the losing sides, in particular Dr Paul Ssmogerere’s Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, elections in Uganda perhaps provide an opportunity to be positive about the civic journey Ugandans and East Africans have undertaken since the 1990s, when the end of the epic 1949-1989 global feud between the two white superpowers — the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union — came to an end.

This feud, the Cold War, had locked weaker countries worldwide into having to choose which of the two nuclear-armed giants’ tents they would rather live in. But this was rarely a democratically worked out choice. The two superpowers needed pawns on their chessboards, and so worked to see the imposition of their chosen autocrats in many countries of the South, especially in Africa and Asia. Elections barely featured in these processes.

The victorious West leaped on the demise of its rival to claim that there was now a “democratic dividend” to be reaped, and that now democracy was possible throughout the South where until then only autocrats had ruled.

This was brought into urgent focus by the underreported fact that the end of the Cold War also brought with it the inability of these tightly wound autocratic systems to maintain themselves. To the extent that our erstwhile dictators had any freedom themselves, it was through gaming the Cold War, and trying to play one superpower off against the other. Arefusal by superpower X to sell tyrant Y the latest military hardware would lead to him make very ostentatious visits and overtures to the capital of the other superpower, much like a young child threatening to go and live with the neighbours.

Suddenly, all that petulance had no audience, no effect. It is not accidental that the period immediately before and immediately after the end of the Cold War saw a rise in regime implosions, civil wars, ethnic landgrabs and country break-ups. And not just in the so-called Third World, but also in much of the poorer, less imperial part of Europe.

This led us into the Era of “good governance” where, suddenly, the Western powers —now reinvented as “donor partners” — felt both obliged and able to attach conditions about democracy and the like to the countries receiving the aid, a thing they had never done during the entire period of the Cold War, nor during the time before that, when Europe directly ruled much of Africa and Asia.

And so we began to see the design of broader, more ostensibly inclusive systems of government being rolled out.

In Uganda, this found resonance with the population, whatever the motives of the donors may have been. The right to assemble and to elect representatives has been one of the longest-standing demands in Ugandan politics, reaching way back into the early colonial period.

We ended up with a remarkable contraption called the 1995 Constitution (since then critically modified by presidential fiat) that included the most elaborate local government electoral systems, representation for “special interest groups” (the military, workers, the disabled, youth), as well as guarantees for gender balancing.

But Ugandans have always taken elections very seriously, and so they took the new constitution at its word, by seizing upon every electoral opportunity it presented. This was not what the ruling National Resistance Party had intended, judging by the reaction to the popularity of Dr Paul Ssemogerere, who stood again for the presidency against (again) President Yoweri Museveni in 1996.

The right to assemble and to elect representatives has been one of the longest-standing demands in Ugandan politics.

I distinctly recall the night after polling day where, in what had been billed as a national address, candidate Museveni appeared on national television in full military uniform and in rambling, agitated tones, issued a firm warning to Ssemogerere supporters about celebrating when the official results had not yet been released. This he did (in a sentence I will never forget), “speaking not just as the Commander of the Armed Forces, but also a founder of the army”.

I do not recall the electoral officials themselves — who should have been the ones concerned about curbing electoral misconduct — having voiced any concern that any such celebrations would be one such example.

I was watching the speech in the home of an old school friend whose in-laws had strong connections to the regime. Judging by the way one of them began to rant about how much of “a hypocrite” (which he pronounced “hypcryte” for some unfathomable reason) Dr Ssemogerere was for deciding to run again President Museveni who had once given him a ministerial post, I could see that “elections” meant something else to the supporters of the ruling party.

There has never been a proper election in Uganda.

Having covered parts of that 1996 election as a camera operator, I think I can testify that the only real change between then and now is that the mechanisms for fraud and intimidation have become more pervasive.

There has never been a proper election in Uganda, I repeat, because, the 1980 coup aside, even the Independence election elicited sharp criticism of one J. C. Peargram, the British civil servant in charge of the process, from, you guessed it, the Democratic Party.

We can speculate as to the intention behind all this constitution-designing and funding, but if it was to lock the politically active into endless but ultimately futile politicking, then this has only been partially successful.

Perhaps voting has changed something: it has brought about its own end.

In the midst of all that, people have gained experience and have seen what is real and what is not. There has been more public information, more skill in accessing and engaging with public information, and broader participation in the national discourse. Critically, there is a much clearer understanding of imperialism.

The only real change between then and now is that the mechanisms for fraud and intimidation have become more pervasive.

The problem is that these are all things that the government (and in my view the corporations behind the donor states) fear. One reaction has been to try to encourage parochial thinking by creating minuscule administrative units around which the locals can fight for posts and tenders. The government may be on to something.

The civic problem in Uganda is the attempt to apply a solution premised on individual rights to problems rooted in group identity.

The Western world — especially after the 1980s neo-liberal economic transformation — is premised on the idea that individual citizens vote for those they believe will bring them solutions to their individually experienced challenges. They do not vote in groups; they vote as collections of individuals. Elections are premised on individualism expressed collectively.

The civic problem in Uganda is the attempt to apply a solution premised on individual rights to problems rooted in group identity.

This is why mere electoralism failed to resolve the crisis of representation in the more “tribal” parts of the UK. In the artificial province of Northern Ireland, the political crisis that ran (and still rumbles) for over thirty years from the early 1960s — leading to one of the deadliest guerrilla wars — began when one group identity began to demand that the electoral system function properly and deliver civic rights and services to all groups. The other group holding the levers of power opposed this and within a decade, after rallies turned into riots which turned into an armed insurrection, the pretence at democracy was abandoned and the province was ruled directly from London.

I think, therefore, that the only time elections will be properly respected is if or when the society in question has been atomised into a collection of self-interested individuals dependent on the state, as opposed to our reality of quasi-autonomous extended families currently surviving the state.

But with neo-liberal policies steadily breaking up the extended family systems all over the region through a myriad of policies on land ownership, family governance, urban housing design, urbanisation itself, and even food production, that day may well come.

For East Africa to truly democratise, the people, in their current form, must first be destroyed.

And then there will be nothing important to vote about.

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

Politics

Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice

The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.

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Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.

The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.

The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.

The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He 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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Politics

IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town

Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?

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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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Politics

East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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