A Dagger to the Heart: The Killing of Indigenous Oromo Leaders11 min read.
A coalition of Oromo advocacy and human rights calls for the investigations into the killing of Oromo leaders on the orders of Ethiopian ruling party officials.
On the evening of 1 December 2021, 14 respected, experienced and culturally venerated leaders of the Karrayyuu Oromo community of 100,000 in central Ethiopia were killed within minutes by Oromia Special Police and Federal forces operating on the orders of ruling party officials sitting a hundred kilometres away in Adama city.
The murdered men were located at Fantalle district, East Shewa Zone of the Oromia regional state in Ethiopia. They were killed execution-style at 7p.m. far from the village where they were abducted when Prosperity Party bosses gave the go-ahead signal via cell phone message to waiting members of the special forces. The murdered men had just finished conducting Waaqa Kadhaa, a sacred indigenous prayer ceremony held at a special site designated for that purpose. In the close-knit iconic livestock-rearing culture of the Karrayyuu people, this was an unthinkable atrocity.
We, a coalition of Oromo advocacy and human rights groups operating internationally consider that this horrifying series of events indicate the intentionality and destructiveness of Abiy Ahmed’s government against the Oromo and other southern and marginalized peoples who do not support his direction for the country. We urge the international community, in particular those concerned with justice, peace, stability and human rights, to take note of what has happened in Karrayyuu. Those who were deeply committed to spirituality and to democratic principles above all, were brutally massacred with lightning speed, an act that sends an ominous warning to the populace that no one is safe right now in Ethiopia.
Historic, political and economic contexts
The shocking massacre was carried out amid an ongoing brutal war between the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and the Tigray Defence Forces in the north of the country, and with the Oromo Liberation Army in the south. The site of the killing is in the Karrayyuu camel-rearing, pastoral grazing and watering lands located close to coveted trade routes for lucrative commodities in a cash-strapped economy. This valued territory has become a target of territorial expansionism by Amhara militias emboldened by the failure of Abiy Ahmed’s government to protect vulnerable populations like the Karrayyuu.
In the days leading to the event, Karrayyuu Oromo community leaders had resisted allowing young people to leave their homeland to be conscripted into the ENDF in the north. Among Oromo communities throughout Ethiopia, the Karrayyuu are well known and esteemed for their consistent practice of the principles of the time-honoured Gadaa system of socio-political organization that encompassed all Oromo before their incorporation into Ethiopia at the turn of the 20th century.
These and other factors make the December tragedy resonate with the entire population and account for the sense of threat and foreboding among other vulnerable groups in the country.
The brutality against of the Karrayyuu Oromo, and their displacement, has historical precedent in Ethiopia. The Karrayyuu have been historically and repeatedly dispossessed of their pastoral land. They lost more than half of it when the government of Haile Selassie established a massive sugar cane plantation at Metahara and when the Awash National Park in the Awash valley was carved out of Karrayyuu territory 200 kilometres east of Finfinnee/Addis Ababa. Jobs at the sugar factory did not benefit the Karrayyuu but instead went to labour imported from other areas. Over the years, substantial contraband trade elsewhere in Ethiopia became extremely lucrative. The routes to the outlets for contraband goods in Djibouti and Somaliland – and therefore the flow of wealth and power – meet at Awash, just east of Fantalle, before running directly through Karrayyuu territory.
Karrayyuu land has been encroached upon by residents of the neighbouring Amhara Region for a number of reasons. They seek territorial expansion for farmland and control/influence over strategic trade routes, and have set their sights on the grazing lands of the Karrayyuu pastoralists. Since the regime of Abiy Ahmed came to power, Amhara Region militia have proceeded to encroach on adjacent Karrayyuu land, clearing vegetation and razing Oromo pastoral structures to the ground and moving signposts without any pushback from government forces who would be expected to enforce the law and protect established legal boundaries.
These aggressive moves by the militia are followed by the arrival of settlers who construct houses and begin farming. Before 2018, there were territorial disputes but “there was balance”, according to residents. Now a sign reading “Welcome to Amhara Region” has been erected 45 kilometres deep into Karrayyuu land, crossing the vital supply routes to Djibouti and Somaliland. The sign was dismantled eight times by Karrayyuu and nine times reconstructed by Amhara militia, until the Prosperity Party dispatched an armed pickup truck to support the Amhara in this struggle over the boundary marker by safeguarding the sign.
Local people interpret such actions as an indication that the Abiy Ahmed government is reviving the imperialistic and assimilationist policies of previous Ethiopian regimes. Actions such as these foment ethnic conflict and justify the use of violence in favour of one ethnic group over the rest of Ethiopia. Such policies invite greater instability in Ethiopia and in the region, as the wars in the north and the south attest. The Fantalle territory is currently a significant prize for Amhara expansionism at the expense of the Karrayyuu. The Abiy Ahmed regime is allowing and condoning this overt land grab.
The massacre and its aftermath
What is known about the Karrayyuu massacre is that Prosperity Party leaders sitting in Adama ordered the execution in cold blood of the Abbaa Gadaa and thirteen other individually selected Gadaa leaders in Fantalle district on the evening of 1 December.
Members of the Michile Gadaa, currently halfway through its eight-year term of office, were present in Motoma, the seat of the Gadaa, a sacred village within the loose collection of hamlets that comprise the area of Karra. They had met on the morning of 1 December 2021 for a prayer ceremony, Waaqa Kadhaa, and had returned to their huts when five vehicles arrived, several of which had mounted machine guns, carrying about 20 Ethiopian government “security forces” — described as a mixture of Oromia Special Forces, Federal soldiers and police.
Local people interpret such actions as an indication that the Abiy Ahmed government is reviving the imperialistic and assimilationist policies of previous Ethiopian regimes.
These “security forces” called out from their homes several dozen people who had attended the ceremony and read out the names of 40 individuals. All forty Gadaa leaders, including their overall leader, the Abbaa Gadaa, Kadiro Hawas Boru, and Gadaa Councillor, Jiloo Didoo, came forward and peacefully submitted after discussing among themselves about the consequences of complying.
Traditional weapons which were worn for the ceremony, and rifles owned by about 20 of the men were removed from their homes and piled before them. Once their weapons had been taken, they were subjected to verbal and, increasingly, to physical abuse.
When the men asked the government forces what they had done to deserve such treatment, the Abbaa Gadaa advised everyone to keep calm, saying there was nothing to fear because they had done no wrong. He informed the soldiers that Abiy Ahmed had visited the area twice and spoken with him personally. Kadiro showed the soldiers a gift he had been given by Abiy Ahmed to prove this claim. (It appeared to be a sort of key fob.)
The forty Gadaa leaders were taken to Anole, an isolated arid area about six kilometres from the village, where they were divided into two groups. Sixteen, including the Abbaa Gadaa, Kadiro Hawas Boru, and Jiloo Didoo remained in Anole where, according to two eyewitnesses who later escaped, they were forced to lie face down on the ground and beaten. The Abbaa Gadaa was separated from the group several times during the day and beaten within earshot of the others. There were many screams of pain but the witnesses were lying face down and unable to see what was happening most of the time.
Throughout the day, there were phone calls between the commander of the soldiers holding the detainees and Prosperity Party headquarters in Adama to discuss the fate of the detained. According to the two escaped leaders, members of the Oromia Special Forces spoke with government officials in Adama to receive instructions and orders to kill the Karrayyuu elders.
Finally, after dark, around 7p.m., the 16 men were lined up and their heads were covered before execution. When the firing started, one of the soldiers threw his gun down and shouted, “I cannot kill Oromo. I cannot kill Karrayyuu!” Hearing this, two of the 16 Gadaa leaders seized the opportunity to run off and escape. The fate of the reluctant soldier is not known. His body was has not been found, although the witnesses reported that he was sharply rebuked by his fellows as the witnesses escaped.
The Abbaa Gadaa advised everyone to keep calm, saying there was nothing to fear because they had done no wrong.
Villagers had heard prolonged shooting during the night and, tipped off by the eyewitnesses, located the killing field later in the morning of 2 December. A soldier guarding the corpses tried to prevent community leaders from taking the bodies but he was chased away. The 14 bullet-riddled remains of the Gadaa leaders were taken back to Karra for burial. Their bodies had already been attacked by wild animals when they were found.
The government’s initial response was to announce that the killings were carried out by “Shane” (Oromo Liberation Army, OLA), a claim that had no credence or evidentiary basis and has since been contradicted by senior officials of the Prosperity Party themselves who have claimed that the Oromia Regional Government is responsible.
Local informants believe that only a disagreement between members of the security forces on 1 December prevented all forty men from being executed in Anole.
The other 24 Gadaa leaders were driven 55 kilometres southwest to a military camp at Wolenchiti, where they were detained and tortured for six or seven days before being transferred to a secret location in Mojo, 28 kilometres on the other side of Adama, along the road to Finfinnee/Addis Ababa. The beatings and torture continued.
Local informants believe that only a disagreement between members of the security forces on 1 December prevented all forty men from being executed in Anole.
One of the detainees, Jiloo Boraya Hawas, who was in his fifties, died from his injuries on 8 December in Mojo. His body lay in the cell with the other detainees for 24 hours before being moved to a container next to the cell where it stayed until Karrayyuu elders tracked down the detainees and confronted their captors on 10 December. The body of Jiloo Boraya Hawas was taken back to Karra where he was buried on 11 December.
Other detainees received hospital treatment before being returned to detention. Six were released to return home on 31 December. The others remain in custody. The presence of these detainees in Mojo and the testimony of the two leaders who escaped the massacre and lived to share their eyewitness accounts, have prevented further claims that the killings were the work of OLA.
The implications for the Karrayyuu
The speed and ferocity of this attack on the sacred and revered Gadaa institution have shocked Oromo communities across the world. The Gadaa is more than a religious institution: it is the core of Oromo identity, the basis of law-making, morality and ethics, civil conduct, and the foundation of a democratic ethos shared by Oromo and other Cushitic peoples of Ethiopia.
Oromo democracy, which predates any western equivalent by several centuries, and includes more checks and balances, is grounded in the Gadaa. The Karrayyuu killings are of enormous significance to all Oromo – whether followers of Waaqefata (traditional monotheist Oromo religion), Christianity or Islam.
Although Prosperity Party officials have been known to spread false information in the past, it is worth noting that they have stepped forward to offer this information, which contradicts earlier government statements that falsely accused OLA “Shane” of the brutality. A leaked one-page letter containing reports of the Karrayyuu massacre written to the Oromia Police Commission and the Attorney from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also confirms, “The order to commit the killing was given from above.”
The persecution of Karrayyuu Oromo had intensified prior to the massacre. Those found in urban areas, buying goods or seeking medical attention, were liable to face beatings and imprisonment. Local estimates are of 200 persons detained, including women and the elderly. They cannot be reached by relatives bringing food and are kept incommunicado. Since the atrocity on 1 December, movement has been further curtailed. Karrayyuu pastoralists are prevented from taking their animals to essential water and pasture. They are now forbidden to carry arms that have been essential to their livelihood, protecting their camels. Now they are arrested or shot if seen carrying rifles.
When the firing started, one of the soldiers threw his gun down and shouted, “I cannot kill Oromo. I cannot kill Karrayyuu!”
Within a few weeks of the massacre, the sacred Gadaa village at Motoma was razed to the ground by Amhara Region Militia. The Karrayyuu who resisted are accused of supporting OLA.
We call for a thorough investigation of the Karrayyuu massacre that will identify the perpetrators, and confirm who ordered and who performed the executions, so that the entire chain of command can be held accountable. Such a disclosure will reveal the nature of the regime in power and provide insight into the mechanisms by which impunity prevails in Oromia.
We call for the Karrayyuu community’s territories to be respected. Amhara militia should be instructed to evacuate the areas immediately. Federal military forces need to return to their barracks. Traditional and ceremonial arms should be returned so that the Karrayyuu may restore their lives and livelihoods. Confiscated camels should be returned to their owners. Funds should be provided for the rehabilitation of a community that has lost its leaders and the families of the executed men.
If the government officially admits the chain of events and holds the perpetrators accountable, this could open the door to reconciliation between the Karrayyuu and the government. Otherwise, the current climate of confrontation between the community and government soldiers sends an ominous message to all Oromo and other marginalized indigenous peoples and bodes ill for the entire region, setting the stage for another catastrophe.
For Oromia and the wider south
The Karrayyuu experience is what Oromo see as the fate of countless other vulnerable communities if protections are not put in place. Indeed, the events in Karrayyuu are a microcosm of what is happening in communities and villages everywhere in Oromia; the harassment and persecution directed at all groups considered, rightly or wrongly, to be adversaries of Abiy’s government. Unfortunately, reports have not been getting out about atrocities taking place in the centre and south of the country due to communication blackouts and travel restrictions.
The UN Human Rights Council has resolved to establish an independent commission of experts to investigate human rights abuses throughout Ethiopia, and not just the violations in the Tigray and Amhara Regions. This is most welcome. An independent verification of egregious abuses in Oromia and other regions of oppressed and marginalized peoples of Ethiopia, who constitute the vast majority of the population of the country, will likely strengthen calls for thoroughgoing changes to the political and power structure of Ethiopia.
An independent investigation will also demonstrate the intentional removal of Oromo, Gumuz, Agaw and Kemant people from Amhara, Benishangul-Gumuz and Oromia Regions by Amhara Region militia.
If investigations go forward, it will become clear that a solution to Ethiopia’s structural problems will not be found in negotiations among northern belligerents alone but must include accountability issues and voices from the wider south and from marginalized peoples.
Democratic forces in Ethiopia and finding inclusive solutions
Investigations will also confirm that forces of democracy have been under attack for three years, since late 2018, starting with attempts to eliminate members of Qeerroo, the Oromo prodemocracy student movement. After four years of peaceful protests and at the cost of thousands of young lives, this group brought an end to EPRDF rule in 2018. The Oromo youth were intent on implementing the principles of democracy in Ethiopia. Their hard-won opening of the democratic space was, however, systematically sabotaged by Abiy Ahmed who had already identified the Qeerroo as his “biggest threat” upon arrival in office.
It should be noted that currently the Ethiopian regime accuses Western countries of “imperialism” and “neo-colonialism”, yet this same Ethiopian regime is spearheading systematic suppression and attacks on indigenous African ways of life and indigenous institutions and leaders within its own boundaries. Abiy Ahmed employs “pan-African” rhetoric claiming “Africa for Africans” on the international stage, while allying himself with notorious dictators and totalitarians around the world. His regime is empowered by this foreign assistance to crush indigenous Oromo people’s aspirations for local autonomy and democracy. Are the Oromo, who aspire to revive an indigenous form of democratic governance, less “African” than the ruler who aspires to destroy ancient ways of life in order to institute authoritarian rule?
Within a few weeks of the massacre, the sacred Gadaa village at Motoma was razed to the ground by Amhara Region militia.
We support any efforts to reach a ceasefire between Ethiopian government forces (including Amhara Region militia and embedded Eritrean troops) and Tigrayan forces. However, we recommend genuinely inclusive negotiations, inclusive of forces represented in Oromia and the southern and marginalized peoples as well, in order to seek a countrywide and lasting solution. The underlying stresses and fault lines in Ethiopian society will not be addressed if negotiations are either influenced or dictated by the government or limited to and controlled by the forces that created the current war.
The oppressed and marginalised peoples together constitute 70 to 75 per cent of the Ethiopian population. At over 40 million, for example, the Oromo alone are twice the population of the average African country. These now-silenced peoples must – with international support and mediation – be central to the conduct of any impartial, independently convened dialogue intended to navigate a way to stable forms of democracy and peace.
Bonnie Holcomb, Oromo Advocacy Alliance, Washington DC, email@example.com, +1 301 523 5565 Dr Trevor Trueman, Oromia Support Group, UK firstname.lastname@example.org +44 1684 573722
Coalition of Advocacy and Human Rights Groups – Signatories
Advocacy 4 Oromia
Institute Greenbelt, MD, USA
Oromia Support Group
Oromia Global Forum
Tacoma Park, MD, USA Oromo
Washington DC, USA
Oromo Human Rights Defenders
Minneapolis, MN, USA
Oromo Legacy Leadership and Advocacy Association
Falls Church, VA, USA
Oromo Professionals Group
Washington, DC, USA
Union of Oromo Communities in Canada
World Oromo Congress
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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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