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Why African Coups Have Nothing To Do With Democracy

11 min read.

Framing coups in juxtaposition with electoral democracies is not only simplistic but is also distractive in the sense that it reduces coups to just a mode of government, argues Yusuf Senrunkuma.



Why African Coups Have Nothing To Do With Democracy
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As coups reappear on the African continent, there is a growing body of commentary that has problematically sought to juxtapose them with electoral democracy.  So, the question is being asked whether coups do or do not signal an end to democracy—and thus a return of the scary opposite, authoritarianism. Most prominently, the BBC, which officially never publishes opinions, ran a curious opinion piece, “Coups in Africa: why they don’t spell an end to democracy” by Nic Cheeseman and Leonard Mbulle-Nziege. As indicated in the title, the piece aggressively connects coups to authoritarianism and discusses coups as a competitor or threat to democracy. The piece is meant to reassure readers that despite the cheers and celebration for the coups, electoral democracies are still in vogue on this dimly lit continent. A more nuanced, and more empirically useful piece appeared in The New York Times: “Five African Countries. Six Coups. Why Now?” Although the NYT analysis does not directly focus on the drills and labours of democracy, it employs the same dialectic, debating coups against democracy.

Before discussing the ahistoricism and related theoretical limitations internal to these analyses, my contention is that framing coups in juxtaposition with electoral democracies is not only simplistic but is also distractive in the sense that it reduces coups to just a mode of government—problematically viewing them as a highway to authoritarianism.  In truth, coups are much more than a mode of government or a means to power. More theoretical-historically, coups in Africa are a colonial question related to the modern state, and the throes and turns that bog this “post-colonial” construction. Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state. Phrased differently, if independence concerned itself with uplifting the formerly colonised—in all spheres of human development such as education, health, income, access to food and water, access to capital, civil liberties and dignity of Africans—these dreams have been defined and continue to undergo different political processes in different moments in the life of the postcolonial state.

What is historically accurate is that the soul and promise of independence is above any form of government (democratic, authoritative, cultural-hereditary); rather, it is constitutive of different political events. Therefore, these coup-vs-democracy analyses are not only ahistorical and theoretically handicapped, they also ought to be seen as absolute neo-colonialist distortions. They blur the histories and political economies, regimes of power and pillage in which major global political shifts continue to shape the African continent, especially in the context of what Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni has called coloniality, or “postcolonial neo-colonised Africa”, as Gayatri Spivak terms it.

Coups constitute a part of those events that have come to define the search for the soul of the independent African state.

What is normally confusing to observers is that coups display a deeply contradictory form of agency on the part of the African actors—the military coup leaders—who tend to be viewed as selfish power grabbers. That is half the analysis. In fact, it is the smaller analysis. In truth, while actors appear to be responding to or may claim actually visible local grievances (specifically, the emptiness of independence), they are at the same time, sadly, responding to, and are inspired and riding on shifts in political regimes in Europe and North America (from where, also, coup execution resources come). The shifts in European-North American politics which influence local events on the continent often relate to the ways in which African resources continue to be pillaged. This essay is an effort to make visible these historical, local-international shifts, and their interactions with the soul of the African.

Africa since independence

One can actually draw a periodised graph reflecting shifts in African politics and the ways in which leaderships have changed since independence in the 1950s and 1960s to the present.  These shifts in local African politics were responses to seismic shifts, to superior forces in neo-colonial politics. Oftentimes, these shifts have little to do with the men who emerge as new leaders in Africa, except through a little positioning and sheer luck. It could be anybody. This is not to say that African actors are deprived of all agency. Not at all.  African actors, especially ordinary folks, have continued to exercise agency in seeking to find meaning in their independent nation states. But often, they are crushed or exploited by superior international players who are quick to influence and conscript publics through both violent and technocratized means. The table below captures the different phases in both global and African politics, and the ways in which they respond to each other.

Period Intl./colonial contestations Local events/leaderships
1955-1965 Independence Anti-colonial leaders
1965-1975 Neo-colonial posturing Coup leaders
1980-1990 Cold War/Proxy wars Liberation wars
1990-2010 USSR collapses, USA rises, Capitalism Electoral democracies
2010-2020 R2P, Human Rights movements, ICC Street Protests/Arab Spring
2020 — Africom; rise of China, Russia, Turkey Coups return

Of course, there are, and will always be overlaps. But the table captures the most prominent political orders of every decade. Congolese politician Denis Sassou Nguesso is the living embodiment of these overlaps, having participated in most of these different phases (led coups, liberation wars, and currently wins elections).


Independence saw anti-colonial leaders naturally emerge as presidents and prime ministers: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana; Patrice Lumumba in Congo-Kinshasa; Milton Obote in Uganda; Julius Nyerere in Tanzania; Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya; Aden Adde in Somalia; Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia; Agostinho Neto in Angola; etc. Discussing the myth of the postcolonial world, Puerto Rican sociologist, Ramon Grosfoguel has noted, “The heterogeneous and multiple global structures put in place over a period of 450 years did not evaporate with the juridical-political decolonization of the periphery.” Indeed, with African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn, but were too impatient to return. As Africa’s leaders sought to consolidate the promise of independence, the “former” colonisers jostled for ways of continued access to resources in the so-called formerly colonised places: coups came to define the African continent.

In addition to assassinations, such as, more prominently, that of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 (in which Americans and Belgians supported Mobutu Sese Seko), coups were the more prominent feature of the new wave of colonial tinkering starting in the early 1960s and running through the 1980s. Nkrumah is overthrown in 1966.  Mali’s Modibo Keita in 1968.  Uganda’s Milton Obote in 1971.  Fulbert Youlou of Congo-Brazzaville in 1963, and his successor, Alphonse Massamba-Débat, five years later. In Somalia, Siad Barre’s coup takes place in 1969. Nigeria’s Tafawa Balewa is couped in 1966 by Yakubu Gowon.  In Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana overthrows Gregory Kayibanda in 1973.  Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie is overthrown by the Derg in 1974, while Muamar Gaddafi’s coup happens in 1969.

With African independence, colonialists had only strategically withdrawn, but were too impatient to return.

Throughout this period, many promising leaders that had emerged from the colonial struggle would be either assassinated, blackmailed or simply couped out of office. It is important to note that while these coups were the product of local grievances, they were largely masterminded by former colonisers jostling for access to resources. (In West Africa, to this day, France has sustained its grip on 14 countries using its central bank, its currency, and its military.) With the culture of coups introduced, one coup led to another, and more leaders sought to portray themselves as the most compliant with the demands of their former colonisers.

Then came the Cold War, as superpowers wrestled each other, again over our resources. Proxy guerrilla wars gave us the next crop of leaders (1980-90s). Africa became the battleground for “liberation wars”, with contending groups, aligned to a superpower, seeking to overthrow the dictator that had come to power through a coup. Foreign-supported Ugandans fought against nationalist leader Idi Amin, and later Obote II, ushering in Yoweri Museveni. President Paul Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) fought Juvenal Habyarimana. In Somalia, several groups emerged to fight against Mohammed Siad Barre during the Somali civil war between 1980 and 1991. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Laurent Désiré Kabila fought and overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko. One major driving thread was that rebel-liberators had to have the support of a superpower, or a subsidiary, which often gave them access to weapons, cash, and other resources including public relations for the purposes of legitimacy.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, we entered an era of democratic elections alongside structural adjustment programmes. Former guerrilla leaders quickly started chanting multiparty politics, and surviving coup-presidents quickly mutated into capitalist-democrats. They promulgated constitutions, and also periodically held elections.  But their actual hold on power was not through elections; rather, it was bedrocked on giving former colonisers unlimited access to resources.  (These were technocratized, expert-driven pillage schemes executed through regimes of banking, tax avoidance by multinational corporations, and monopolies—all of them superintended by the new colonial administrators, the World Bank and the IMF.) These leaders include Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Joseph Kabila of DRC, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Jerry Rawlings of Ghana, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, etc.

Throughout the 1990s and 2010s, former rebels and earlier coup leaders—now democrats and incumbents—organised and won one election after another. In truth, the ways in which an election unfolded did not matter; what mattered was the holding of an election itself, which translated into legitimacy for loans and grants. During this time, with one single power dominating the world, and already granted access to resources across Africa, there was a phase of relative political stability, with leaders enjoying long spells in office.  It did not matter who was in charge of the country or which policies they implemented, as long as they implemented free market economics, which in effect allow Europe and North America unrestricted access to resources.

It is important to note that while these coups were a product of local grievances, they were largely masterminded by former colonisers jostling for access to resources.

Then came the era of human rights movements and discourses—especially within the context of 9/11, the birth of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the endorsement of the Responsibility to Protect doctrines. Emboldened by one of the doctrines of R2P, which is protection against human rights and other violations (with potential for intervention), street protests as a legitimate means of political negotiation were born.  Indeed, it is the 2010-2020 decade that gave us, among other things, the Arab Spring. Ironically, the uprisings in Arab Africa and the Middle East continue to be read as “struggles for democracy” or are viewed as “manifestations of democracy”. (There are tons of papers and media commentary with keywords “Arab Spring” and “democracy” in their headlines.) They were not agitations for democracy. With the exception of one country, Libya, the others—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria—have continuously held elections, a major defining marker of a democratic dispensation (and on the basis of which the WB and the IMF view a government as legitimate and thus deserving of loans and grants). But as the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Ennahda Movement in Tunisia demonstrated, these were historical struggles for independence, with formerly colonised peoples still dreaming of being governed on their own local-cultural terms, and ironically seeking to escape the oppressive and exploitative character of the democratic order preached by the world’s “new intellectuals of empire’” in academia and mass media.

Presently, human rights discourses have not necessarily become obsolete, but they have lost their salience and their urgency. They have been overtaken by events. There is dullness around them, especially in black Africa, where current governments freely give foreign banks and Western monopoly capital all the access they need.  But at the same time, our democracy-practicing former rebels have found smarter ways of preventing protests from taking place while some communities simply lack the intellectual and material resources to pull off successful protests.

There is a new phase in international European colonial positioning: On the one hand, there is United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) established in 2007 and launched in 2008. Coming on the heels of 9/11, Africom was pitched as a tool to coordinate military relations with African countries.  But in reality—as all US bases actually do—Africom pursues and protects American political and economic interests. In an enriching conversation with Democracy Now, political anthropologist Samar Al-Bulushi noted that Africom,

. . . now has approximately 29 known military facilities in 15 states across the continent. And many of the countries . . . that have experienced coups or coup attempts are key allies of the U.S. in the war on terror, and many of the leaders of these coups have received training from the U.S. military.

To fully appreciate the new phase emerging on the continent that favours coups, one has to consider the other side of this conversation—the other seemingly competing powers.  China, Russia and Turkey have continued to rise in power and stature and are viewed as destabilising long established (American-European) patterns of resource exploitation on the African continent. Indeed, the ongoing rivalry between China and the United States has been well documented. With the ideological orientation of the soldiers trained by Africom, and the security-related grants they are privileged to receive (easier than anything else, be it education or health, as Al-Bulushi noted in the same interview), it is arguable that more than a decade later, these officers are seeking to take over power, securitizing entire countries, confident to emerge as the legitimate buffer between their ideological and military benefactors and the Chinese and Russian competition. Worth noting is that over and above the push-and-pull between these new superpowers, long-staying leaders have become an embarrassment to their benefactors in Europe and North America—particularly with regard to their human rights records—while at the same time they are easily winning elections and constitutionally amending constitutions. Once they are deposed, Europe and America are hard-pressed to condemn the coups. It is no wonder then that coups are receiving general acceptance in our so-called international community.

The problem with democracy discourses

I started this article with the assertion that coups have nothing to do with democracy, and nor does democracy have anything to do with coups. But coups point to the revolving life-cycle of foreign and local interests, and the quest for meaning in Africa. Democratic or un-democratic (whatever those terms mean), African countries remain the same: exploited, their economies dominated by Western bankers (and African banks are the most profitable across the world), exporters of raw materials (and not because they are unable to add value), with heavily impoverished populations and a youth problem, etc. From Nigeria to South Africa, Zambia to Ghana, Kenya or Uganda, with regular elections and chants of democracy, these countries remain the same with regards to most growth indices. Strangely, a so-called non-democratic autocracy, Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was classed as most advanced on the UN Human Development Index, above South Africa.

In their BBC opinion piece of 8 February 2022, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege express worry but are also confident in the resilience of democracy. Thus, they are quick to pour water on the cheers that welcomed coups in some of the places where they took place. They are armed with figures and surveys that they endlessly regurgitate, discussing inexistent things such as economic growth and human rights. While running their surveys, they never include the work of anthropologists to appreciate the quality of civil publics in Africa, and nor do they include the work of historians and political economists dealing with broader theoretical questions relating to notions such as “problem spaces” and local-international connections.

The ways in which an election unfolded did not matter, but what mattered was the holding of an election itself.

The NYT analysis on the other hand, points to the excitement around coups, but notes that the grievances run deep, springing mostly from the economy and continued colonial control.  Focused on understanding why coups are back, the NYT underlines, “insecurity, bad governance, and frustrated youth”. Reporting on pro-coup voices in downtown Ouagadougou, the NYT notes that they were “inspired by the way the junta in neighboring Mali had stood up to France, the increasingly unpopular former colonial power”. Quoting an ordinary person—a customer at a cellphone market in Ouagadougou called Anatole Compaore, who had welcomed the coup, the NYT reported him as saying, “Whoever takes power now, he needs to follow the example of Mali—reject France, and start to take our own decisions,” echoing the anti-colonial sentiments that run deep in most West African states still under direct French control, which also include Togo, Senegal, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire.

Quick to dismiss any grounds upon which coups could be welcomed, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege simplistically and directly connect coups to authoritarianism, arguing that authoritarian regimes do not deliver economic growth. They write, that “despite growing frustration with the way that multiparty politics is performing [link in original], on average democracies generate higher economic growth and do a better job of providing public services, according to a study at the US’s Cornell University.” Without problematizing the ways in which democracies generate higher economic growth (than non-electoral regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Libya under Gaddafi, or the United Arab Emirates), it is curious scholarship that directly connects non-electoral leaderships to autocracies incapable of delivering civil liberties and freedoms. Perhaps noticing this anomaly, Cheeseman and Mbulle-Nziege add, “The poor performance of authoritarian forms of government on African soil . . . helps to explain why the support for democracy is high,” perhaps to create the dichotomy that authoritarian governments elsewhere have performed better. But how does one generate firm understanding through such ahistorical and untheoretical analyses?

It becomes clear that democracy discourses in the present “problem space” of African politics ought to be understood as not necessarily obsolete but overtaken by events ironically emanating from Europe and North America, and their contestations. Africans remain colonised. New problem spaces require that we ask questions that are specific to the discursive context. Clearly, coups are back because of the nature of the new phase we are in in the life of the neo-colonised postcolonial state.

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Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers which was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda. He is also a scholar and researcher who teaches political economy and history.


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.



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.



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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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.



Breaking the Chains of Indifference
Photo by Musnany on Unsplash.
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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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