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Coups, Insurgency and Imperialism in Africa

13 min read.

West Africa is in the grip of a wave of coups, popular protests and fierce geopolitical struggles. Amy Niang argues that declining western hegemony in the region goes hand to hand with intensified competition for access and control of Africa’s natural resources. Furthermore, Niang states, the Russian occupation of Ukraine compels us to look at the importance of the country’s growing presence in Africa.

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Coups, Insurgency and Imperialism in Africa
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Across the Sahel, young people are restless. So are soldiers. The region is in the grip of an unprecedented wave of coups d’état that have followed each other within a short period of time: within a year or so, five coups d’état have successively rocked Mali, Chad, Guinea, and Burkina Faso in widespread unrest that risks destabilizing the entire region again.

Since the mid-1990s, coups had become exceptional events that occurred mainly during moments of perceived chaos, with the aim to disrupt the normal constitutional dispensation in order to restore order. Increasingly however, they occur as a form of political intervention designed to correct regular politics that has fallen into a permanent state of crisis and repression.

This moment is a historical shift but also a harbinger of an uncharted future. Not only are the recent coups not contested, but they are also seen as an opening into a new politics of liberation. They could signal a return to a long period of tumult, equally they could also be an opening for a different kind of politics.

The ongoing instability lays bare the accumulated effects of decades of aggressive neoliberal reforms that have eroded the social fabric, the growing significance of a politicized, young generation of Africans that do not share the same political culture as their elders, and the massive failure of the war against terror in the Sahel that has produced neither security nor stability. It also points to some of the ways in which fierce geopolitical battles are likely to wreak havoc in the African continent as Western hegemonic influences declines in the region.

In this long-read for roape.net, I want to argue that the present dilemma has to be seen as an inflection point in both the democratization and decolonization process in West Africa and Africa more generally.

A democratic impasse

One cannot fully make sense of the recent coups d’état in Africa without a full understanding of concomitant popular uprisings that have been occurring on a regular albeit sporadic manner in different parts of the continent. The common impulse, from Mali to Sudan, from Guinea to Burkina Faso is a desire for change, meaningful change.

The much celebrated constitutional order has been discredited in a context where  constitutions are routinely violated, regulating mechanisms are often neutralized, and incumbent presidents consistently violate term-limits. For instance, Cote d’Ivoire’s President Alassane Ouattara and Guinea’s Alpha Condé both violated constitutionally locked term-limits to run for presidential elections. As the Nigerian writer Jibrin Ibrahim demonstrates, under the current nominal democracy, elected Presidents have also perpetrated coups of an electoral or constitutional nature. In Tunisia, the government of President Kaïs Saïed has taken a de facto authoritarian turn in July 2021. Through rule by decree, Saïed has tempered the constitutional and judicial structure and therefore neutralized any meaningful checks and balance.

In the 1990s, the demand for democratic opening was externally driven by development aid partners and Bretton Woods and other multilateral agencies. The democratic norm was being push through as African states were also being pressured to cut public expenditure in education, health and other social services. Yet the ongoing demand for democracy is internal in kind, it is a popular demand for a different kind of politics and a different kind of democratic participation and not a ‘performance’ on the basis of the Mo Ibrahim index or similar instruments.

Yet, overwhelming media attention of the military government’s standoff with the ‘international community’ muddies an understanding of very urgent crises that will not be resolved by another round of elections. As long as fundamental problems of economic sovereignty, of the state’s capacity to raise financial resources internally, to provide security and social services to its population are unresolved, rushing to elections will merely enable a change of guards to run the same derelict institutions. The democratic struggle is first and foremost a struggle for a political model that is responsive to people’s demands for basic public goods.

Popular uprisings are also an indictment of the failure of formal civil societies organizations that have either become too institutionalized if they are not entirely coopted by governments. Their ability to fully perform their responsibility as safeguards of people’s rights against state excesses has been hampered by an attachment to the orthodoxy of electoral liberalism. A major shortcoming has been its inability to harness into a cogent political project strident current popular demands for an alternative political order. The greatest insecurity that plagues Sahelian communities is linked to food security, and to limited human development.

It is clear to many careful observers of West African politics that something fundamentally different has been simmering over the past few years. The disconnect between governments and people has become more pronounced in the prolonged context of insecurity since 2012. The coronavirus pandemic has furthermore eroded public trust in governments’ ability to deliver public goods or foster greater democratic opening.

There is a question that lingers in everybody’s mind: has the specter of coups and countercoups returned to African politics? More specifically, is West Africa about to fall back into a vicious pattern of coups and countercoups without any seeming logic or order? The fear of a domino effect is real, and one cannot rule out the possibility of another elected government falling under another coup.

Linking coups and popular protests

The five most recent coups in Africa have been directly or indirectly prompted by popular protests of insurgent magnitude. This is significant.

Between April-August 2020, massive crowds gathered in Bamako and in major Malian cities to denounce endemic misrule, a series of corruption scandals involving specifically the purchase of military equipment amid insecurity across the country. The government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had also been marred by the accusation of massive fraud in the legislative elections of March 2020. Mali’s security situation had deteriorated drastically since 2015. The country fell into a state of chronic instability with burgeoning violence coming not only from jihadist forces, but also from government-backed militias and self-defense groups. Following months-long popular mobilization led by the M5 RFP coalition – the 5 June Mouvement and the Rally of Patriotic Forces – crowds literally escorted the military to the presidential palace. These are the circumstances that saw the takeover of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) military council.

In Burkina Faso, days of uninterrupted public protest preceded the putsch last year. On 14 November, 2021, the country experienced the most brutal attack on security forces. Fifty-three gendarmes were killed in Inata. The public later learned with dismay that the exhausted gendarmes had been without food and supplies for days and could not withstand the ambush. Inata eventually sealed the fate of the president Roch Kaboré. This wasn’t the first recent coup in Burkina Faso. In 2014, months-long street protests culminated into the resignation of 27 year-reigning Blaise Compaoré. Compaoré fled to Cote d’Ivoire where the Ouattara government offered a safe haven against demands for his extradition to Burkina Faso to face justice in the trial on the murder of Thomas Sankara. The military transition that ensued enabled the organization of relatively free elections for the first time in post-independence Burkina Faso.

Although every coup is different and responds to specific circumstances, the same causes can be said to have produced similar effects in both Burkina and Mali. Further, there are embedded historical inequities within armies themselves that mirror existing and widespread social inequities. Coups today may no longer be anchored in revolutionary nationalist or Pan-Africanist politics but some of them, like in Burkina Faso, articulate certain popular demands for social justice and democratic renewal. In the speeches of Paul-Henri Damiba – the interim president and coup leader –  Sankara stands as an avatar of an aborted military-driven radical experiment. Army cadets are also politicized in a way that engraves the role of the military in ongoing struggles to reimagine social contracts across Africa. The fact that officers are fighting an internal battle that is also about repositioning a professional military hints at an enduring backdrop to recurrent coups.

It is important to note that public ‘demand’ for the disciplining authority of the military has often been a trojan horse that allows the military to ‘rise up to their responsibility’ as a now familiar, almost scripted ritual announcement that every new coup makes it a point to deliver.

In both Burkina Faso and Mali, transition military governments have initiated country-wide consultations (‘assises nationales’) to collect a wide-range of views from political formations and civil society on constitutional reform. To what extent the military’s move to act democratic-like is likely to lead to substantive change is a different question altogether. If the strategy is quite unprecedented for a military government, the reason for the shift is to be found in the growing importance of struggle on the ground – from popular forces from below.

In toppling civilian governments and ‘installing’ the military, protestors often aim to trigger a speedy change outside of the ballot box. Needless to say, this also heralds an uncertain future that gives no guarantee of success. Military coups are rarely transformative. Further, the military itself is a institution in its own terms that has its own logic of power accumulation. Obviously, if the military was the solution, neither Burkina Faso nor Mali would have gone through multiple coups. Mali has experienced five coups since independence while Burkina holds a record of  seven coups with a total of 47-years ruled under various military governments. At any rate, the gains of popular movements hang on a fragile thread that is constantly threated by the encroaching logic of external internal intervention especially in countries whose natural resources are highly coveted.

In 2019, Algerian and Sudanese decades-long regimes fell through popular pressure. Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar al-Bashir were deposed by public pressure. In contrast to Mali and Burkina Faso, Sudan has a robust, deep-rooted tradition of political activism led by well-organized leftist movements, especially student movements. Not only have the Sudanese “resistance committees” been able to force concessions from the military, they proactively forged ahead with a political charter for transition presented on 27 February, 2022. The Charter for the Establishment of the People’s Authority seeks to reverse decades-long military-led governance and restricted civic participation.

Two dilemmas are apparent in the trends mentioned above. On the one hand, it is nearly impossible to assess the extent to which popular protests express representative, legitimate, and uncoerced grievances. On another, to read military coups from a liberal institutional framework which demarcates the ‘civilian’ and the ‘military’ as distinct spheres of action has time and again proven reductive.  Such thinking does not allow us to consider solutions outside of injunctions to restore the normal ‘constitutional order’. Neither does it take into account the specificity of the formation of African military systems within a colonial context and their development in postcolonial states.

Contested regional leadership

The default reaction of the West African bloc ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) to the recent coups has been to distribute sanctions on account of ‘norms’ uncritically enforced in a bureaucratic and uncreative approach. The coup policy of both the African Union’s Lomé Declaration of 1999 and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ADC) is systematic sanctions against unconstitutional changes of government even when these are the outcome of compelling popular protests. However, the continental body has neither been consistent nor impartial in its approach. In Chad for instance, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) determined that the country was under threat of destabilization from Libya and did not therefore enforce sanctions against the Transitional Military Council. Although the dislocation of Libya has had tremendous consequences in the subsequent destabilization of the Sahel, more specifically Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the AU security assessment is all the more surprising as Chad has been relatively unaffected by the Libyan civil war. However, Chad remains France and the West’s staunchest ally in the Sahel in the fight against terrorism. For many observers, the AU buried its legitimacy in Chad by endorsing both a military coup and a dynastic takeover.

The AU is not the only discredited regional institution. ECOWAS has long been seen as a club of the malleable who speak with one tutored voice. Never before has ECOWAS been so disconnected from its populations. Having turned the other way over a series of constitutional coups which paved the way for military coups for instance in Guinea, ECOWAS has emerged as a discredited entity.

According to the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM), the West African bloc violated its own statutory rules in imposing sanctions that fall outside of its normative instruments, most specifically the 2001 ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance. Besides, the region’s economies are already badly affected by the coronavirus pandemic and sanctions imposed on Mali have consequences for other ECOWAS members. For instance, Mali accounts for 20% of Senegal’s trade volume; most export goods destined to Mali transit through the port in Dakar.

Waning Western tutelage

One could almost speak of an anachronism between on the one hand the perception of post-colonial stagnation in which the Sahelian region is believed to be steeped and the way in which ‘partnership’ continues to be discussed as the framework of engagement that structures the Sahel’s relations with the former colonial power France. France specifically appears like a stubborn guest that stays on when the party is over.

At the request of the government of Mali fearful that Jihadists were advancing towards Bamako, France launched Operation Serval which led a swift ‘victory’ in early 2013. The succeeding Operation Barkhane – a 5000 strong force that constitutes the backbone of French counter-terrorist intervention in the Sahel, over the years fell into a predictable pattern. In other words, it became locked into its own narrow logic, merely responding to French understanding of its strategic security interests in the Sahel. Despite France announcing a drawdown of Barkhane, as a result of intense pressure in Mali itself, it categorically opposed Mali’s seeking support from other governments to help it restore stability across the country.

The government of Assimi Goïta  – who has been serving as interim president since May last year – has always shown suspicion regarding French ambivalence towards Tuareg’s desire of autonomy. After all, the French army command enforced a de-facto partition of Mali by preventing the national army from access to the Tuareg rebellion stronghold in Kidal and used its hegemony as leverage against the Bamako government. There is another reason for the French to seek to institute a buffer zone in Northern Mali. Kidal is about 300 km from Arlit where French giant ORAN (former AREVA) exploits uranium yellowcake. There are also important uranium reserves to the south of Arlit in addition to strategic minerals, arable land and water. The maintenance of military forces in Northern Mali therefore becomes the condition for continuing to supply its nuclear plants.

Furthermore, the Taoudeni Basin – from Mauritania to Algeria and north Mali – is a much-coveted oil basin as the world moves towards a period of depletion of oil resources. Mali itself has large limestone, salt and gold deposits in addition to oil, iron ore and bauxite minerals that are largely unexploited. Given all this, France puts tremendous pressure on WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union) leaders to apply sanctions on Mali. Further, taking advantage of the rotating presidency of the EU, the French President has been lobbying other EU members for support. On 19 January  this year, at his inaugural speech as rotating President, Emmanuel Macron declared in no uncertain terms: “It is in Africa that global upheaval is partially being played out, and a part of the future of this [European] continent and its youth […] and our future”.

France is neither ready nor willing to deal with its former African colonies on equal footing. For a long time, it has relied upon clientelist relations to ensure sustained access to African minerals for an unfair price. The maintenance of compliant regimes was always the condition for unimpeded access and control.

The ongoing geopolitical struggle with Russia in fact comes down to this: the argument about delayed elections and democratic governance in reality masks strategic and security interests that France is keen to protect at any cost. Declining western hegemony in the region goes hand to hand with intensified competition for access and control over Africa’s mineral and natural resources. Whereas the security crisis is real across Mali and the Sahel, the crisis that emerged out of disagreement over the presence of French troops and so-called Russian mercenaries has been engineered. Despite much noise about famed Wagner Group, there is little factual information about its presence or operations in Mali. Even so, there is nothing unusual about states using mercenary units for ‘special operations’. One recalls that France itself developed the Foreign Legion – a traditional pathway for citizenship for individual adventurers hired to serve unorthodox French operations around the world, in Africa in particular.

The ongoing stand-off between the West and Russia over the occupation of Ukraine throws into stark relief the importance of Russia’s growing presence in Africa. Russia supplies weapons and military equipment to 30 African countries. Russia is said to be the largest supplier of weapons to Africa of the past few years.

It would be a mistake to see in the thousands of young Africans occupying the streets of Bamako, Kayes and Ouahigouya or blocking French military convoys anarchic crowds that are neither rooted in a solid political culture nor hold a clear vision of what they are yearning for. It would equally be a mistake to see in the popular protests against French military presence in the Sahel as some kind of reactionary resentment of the subaltern or a revanchist postcolonial fury. Underlying the protesters’ outburst is a widespread pursuit of a sovereignty most imagine to have been lacking in their countries since the time of independence. Young people’s demand for ‘meaningful sovereignty’ is explicitly framed against a postcolonial condition that maintains their countries under neocolonial control. Theirs is a struggle for a second independence.

A foundering war

The Sahel was poised to become the new cauldron of the war on terrorism following the France and NATO-led armed intervention in Libya in 2011 and the latter’s subsequent disintegration. The securitarian logic pursued by Sahelian states and intervention forces had two predictable consequences. Firstly, as armed groups and militias proliferated in response to perceived arbitrary injustice in relation to both the state and jihadist groups, the state could label any peripheral or dissenting group ‘terrorist’ and thus give itself license to kill legitimately. Secondly, the fabric of state-society relations has deteriorated in the process as the fight against terrorism came to trump all other economic and social objectives.

Counterterrorist policies have in the main reinforced the repressive capacities of Sahelian states. As many a report have shown, more civilians have died in the hands of Sahelian states and Operation Barkhane than they have under terrorist violence. Yet, the overwhelming majority of so-called militants in the various insurgent groups operating in the Sahel are Malians and Burkinabè nationals from villages and communities known to their neighbors. They need to be engaged through dialogue and concertation.

Dwindling resources under the accelerating effects of climate change have led to deteriorating standards of living and compounded conflicts amongst communities over access to scarce resources. The Sahel faces frequent droughts and food shortages. Embattled and impoverished populations are leaving villages and those that can afford it have fled further afield into neighboring countries if they are not risking their lives in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Further, at a time when Sahelian states have also become the enforcers of EU border policies, some youth are treated like trespassers and criminals in their own states.

In their unqualified commitment to the fight against ‘terrorism’, it would seem that Sahelian countries have delivered more insecurity than they have delivered jobs and economic security for their populations. Ordinary people are having a hard time understanding why after almost 10 years of intervention, a 13000 soldiers strong UN mission, a 5000 strong Barkhane force, including French-led European Takuba Task Force, and G5Sahel, the security situation has deteriorated rather than it has improved. The G5Sahel is a 2017 French initiative to coordinate the fight against Jihadist among five Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. It has been a dismal failure. A UN report explains the joint operation’s slow progress and the absence of tangible security gains as the result of a narrow military outlook, divergent priorities amongst concerned countries and a fraught relation with civilians.

If Afghanistan is anything to go by, military intervention campaigns are rarely transformative enterprises.

Interventions have become ritualized forms of action in which external actors use the cover of ‘peace’ ‘security’ and ‘order’ to justify intervention by itself. It produces discursive tropes that validate militarization as a new-age normative crusade of human rights, democratization and liberation of economic activity. Since the 1990s, states have been reduced to enforcers of Bretton Woods injunctions to liberalize if they are not busy enforcing ‘partner countries’ security policies.

People may not understand the intricacy of decision-making processes that have led to the present fiasco, but they perceive the relative inefficiency of the billions of dollars that have been spent on the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the Barkhane Operation – which cost around 1 billion euros per year – and other international forces while Sahelian armies remain underfunded, underequipped, lacking the technological resources to collect reliable intelligence. One recalls that the March 2012 coup and that of August 2020 were both prompted by widespread public dissatisfaction with the blatant inefficacy of the Malian army fighting the Tuareg rebels and Jihadists. The Malian army was then ill-equipped -and they still are – to fight the jihadists. The public perceives that something is fundamentally wrong. What is peacekeeping in a country that is in active conflict? Failing to impose peace, what is MINUSMA exactly doing in Mali?

A historical shift?

We may just be at the cusp of a revolution of a new kind, one that first and foremost opposes different generations whose experience of, and outlook over the postcolonial present barely overlap. The generational shift affects both the political and the military elites.

There is in fact more to the recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso than meet the eye. It would be absurd to pose the problem in terms of a choice to be made between military regimes vs. liberal democracy. The coups themselves are not the ultimate objective. The military is called upon to break a deadlock, to upend the status quo as neutral arbiters. Some of the protestors in Burkina Faso made that much clear in stating their determination to occupy the streets again should the military government fail to deliver on promises. However, coups potentially provide an opening for a necessary debate on a serious social project, something that has not been a preoccupation of previous governments since the time of the revolutionary Thomas Sankara.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Amy Niang is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Africa Institute in Sharjah. She is the author of The Postcolonial African State in Transition: Stateness and Modes of Sovereignty.

Politics

‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.

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‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened
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On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:

“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.

The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.

The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.

Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics

The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.

As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.

The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.

As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.

Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change  

From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.

Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.

Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.

Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:

“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”

Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.

‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’? 

Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.

Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:

“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’

These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.

“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.

The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.

Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.

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Politics

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.

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The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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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 servicesCritics 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.

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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.

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Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
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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.

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