Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?11 min read.
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.
But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.
This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.
That America is a plutocracy
A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?
In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.
The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.
Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.
The effects of the plutocracy on American life
It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.
The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.
Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.
(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)
The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.
A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.
Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)
Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.
The effect of the plutocracy on American politics
The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.
Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.
Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.
In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.
The 2020 campaign
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.
Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.
(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)
The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.
And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.
So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
Is there hope?
There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.
However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.
Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.
As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.
The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.
We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.
I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.
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The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
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.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
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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