Borana Sacrifice in the Oromo Liberation Struggle9 min read.
The Borana were at the forefront of the Oromo national liberation struggle and tens of thousands paid the ultimate prize while many others were arrested, liquidated, maimed, or displaced throughout Oromia.
Constitutionally, Ethiopia is a democratic federal state organized along ethnolinguistic lines. However, the de facto centralization of power, political repression and politicization of ethnicity continue to be the dominant features of the state.
The Oromo national movement began to develop in the 1960s by challenging the policies and practices of the Ethiopian colonial state. Even though the Oromo people are the largest national group in Ethiopia—estimated at 50 million—they were treated as a political minority both by Haile Selassie and by the Derg regime that overthrew him.
From the beginning of Haile Selassie’s autocratic rule in 1941, the Oromo language was banned from use in the education curriculum, in schools, and in the administration. The Abyssinian bourgeoisie viewed Oromo identity and language as a hindrance to the expansion of Amhara identity. Amharic, which is the language of the Amhara, the politically dominant ethnic group, and the mother tongue of less than 20 per cent of Ethiopia’s population, was imposed on the other ethnic groups without considering their sentiments and opinions. The Oromo language ban would remain in place until 1991, resulting in ethnonational domination, political disenfranchisement and exclusion, cultural destruction, and sparking outrage that would lead to radical Oromo nationalism.
Moreover, in spite of their diversity, their numbers and their occupation of large urban and pastoral zones, the Oromo people of Ethiopia have experienced a long history of marginalization, forced assimilation and the loss of their fertile lands, which were annexed and ceded to other ethnic minorities by the ruling Amhara hegemony. This ostracism has resulted in the decline of the pastoralist lifestyle among the Oromo.
The creation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the 1974 Ethiopian revolution awakened Oromo aspirations to regain their political rights, human dignity and equality. The revolution not only aroused Oromo pride in their national identity, language and culture, but also raised their hopes of regaining their lands; after the 1974 revolution, land reform of some kind was a foregone conclusion.
Two major geopolitical tragedies caused by former Somalia strongman Siad Barre—the 1977-1978 Ethio-Ogaden war and the civil war in 1991 that led to the collapse of Barre’s military regime—produced a massive wave of return of Ethiopian refugees and an influx of newly created Somali refugees.
In 1977, with Ethiopia in turmoil, and the balance of power decisively in Somalia’s favour, Barre had launched a ground invasion of Ethiopia to wrestle the Ogaden—or Western Somalia as Somalis referred to it—from Ethiopian control. This triggered the movement of refugees fleeing the Ogaden war and the drought-stricken regions of the Horn.
The situation was further exacerbated by the massive displacement of Somali refugees fleeing the civil war that had begun in Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia. As the civil war in Mogadishu deepened, other parts of the country fell into the hands of clan-based warlords. Somali refugee arrivals in Ethiopia increased significantly due to the combined effects of drought, famine and political instability in Somalia.
The Somali returnees were assisted by the UNHCR and by several NGOs. In some districts and Kebele (the smallest administrative unit similar to a ward), the returnees overwhelmed the local populations by up to nearly 300 per cent, a figure indicating that the returnees were mixed up with new refugees from Somalia and immigrants from Kenya; by registering as returnees, families could access support from the UNHCR.
The situation was further exacerbated by the massive displacement of Somali refugees fleeing the civil war that had begun in Mogadishu.
Getachew Kassa writes that the Garre (a major Somali clan inhabiting southern Somalia, Ethiopia and northern Kenya) were identified as Qohati (returnee). During their stay in Somalia, and in the course of their repatriation, the “returnees” had developed a higher opportunistic capacity to act in modern politics and to successfully interrelate with international refugee policies and UN organizations. Upon their return, they linked up with the local pastoralists of their own clan, but retained a rather separate identity and lifestyle compared to the pastoralists.
While the Arsi and Guji ex-members of the Somali Abbo Liberation Front redefined their agenda and identity in the terms agreed with the local Oromo and left the organization, the Garre, the Gabra and the Mareexaan returnees changed the name of the organization to Oromo Abbo Liberation Front (OALF).
Claiming an Oromo identity was a way of legitimising their demands to be resettled in an Oromo-speaking region. In both Liiban and Dirree, conflict first broke out in November 1991 between the Gabra Miigoo and the Borana, following an attempt by the former to open an OALF office in Yaaballoo.
The Degodia, one of the major Somali clans, had supported the Borana in checking the movements of the heavily armed and motorized ex-soldiers of Siad Barre that had been supporting both the Mareexaan and the Garre/Gabra Miigoo against the Borana. The Degodia did not side with the Somali owing to their clan affiliation in opposition to the Said Barre-led Mareexaan in Somali politics. The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) tried to arbitrate between the conflicting parties, while simultaneously re-organizing the administrative set-up and building its local network of alliances.
These political dynamics can only be analysed in the light of the OLF factor where the Boranas were alleged to be OLF sympathizers. At that crucial early stage, the Borana came to be identified as strong OLF supporters, although the organisation was only active in the Borana zones of Dirre, Liiban, Yaaballo and Moyyalle during the short period of campaigning from 1991 to 1992 when it was part of the Transitional Government of Ethiopia.
This impression was later exacerbated by the position of the Borana along the border with Kenya, an area where one of the OLF military branches became active after 1992; several Borana elders were quite critical of the OLF’s decision to withdraw from the 1992 elections, a decision that exposed youths, supporters and sympathizers to harsh state repression.
The Ethiopian constitution grants the Oromia region “special interest” status because the city of Addis Ababa is an enclave in Oromia. However, a law that stipulates how this “special interest” region is to be governed has yet to be promulgated.
Researcher Sara Lister suggests that even in those districts that had remained under Oromia administration (Region 4) after 1994, into which the Borana had been squeezed, the Gabra Miigoo have generally been well-treated by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in order to create a counterforce to the Borana, and have benefited from increased numbers of political positions.
The 1995 and 2000 regional and federal elections, and the 2001 Woreda (district) and Kebele (ward) elections were held without any opposition figures running, with the result that all political representatives and administrators were simply “appointed” by the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) through an internal party process. A few Borana with a low level of education who were affiliated with OPDO managed to get some political positions, mainly at the lower district level (Woreda).
The Ethiopian constitution grants the Oromia region “special interest” status because the city of Addis Ababa is an enclave in Oromia.
By 1995, the Maareexan seemed to have fallen out of sympathy with the EPRDF. In 1998, the pastoral component of the Maareexan gave up Somali territorial claims in the Liiban District of Region 4 and recognized the Borana traditional system of resource management. They slowly re-established themselves in pastoral life.
The Gabra Miigoo retained their Oromo identity and aligned with the OPDO, the Oromo branch of the EPRDF. As mentioned, the Gabra pastoralists slowly re-built their relations with the Borana pastoralists by revitalizing their customary leadership and Yaa’a.
In the spring of 1991, the EPRDF, a Tigrayan-led coalition of rebel organizations under the leadership of Meles Zenawi, began to achieve real successes and defeated the Ethiopian army, forcing military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who had ruled the country since 1994, to flee the country. In the midst of cease-fire talks, EPRDF tanks entered Addis Ababa virtually unchallenged and a transition government was formed soon after, with Meles Zenawi as its president. In July, a new democratic constitution was drafted, and Eritrean independence was acknowledged without incident.
Formed in 1974, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) was the first major Oromo political party. However, it was overshadowed by the ruling EPRDF coalition member, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) created by Meles Zenawi. Seeking self-determination for the Oromo people, the OLF pulled out of the interim government with the EPRDF in 1992.
Reality dawned on the Oromia nation as soon as the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi, ascended to power. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed, the EPRDF was swept to power in poorly contested, sham elections in August 1995, and Zenawi became Ethiopia’s first prime minister. The TPLF dominated the EPRDF ruling alliance. The Tigrayan minority dominated the senior ranks of government and the TPLF promulgated a series of laws crippling the opposition, ethnic-cleansing the Oromos and Amharas, muzzling the media and shackling civil society.
The reality is that the TPLF faced the united opposition of almost all Ethiopian nationalities. This is because, in the nearly three decades that it was in power (1991-2018), the organization had a dismal record of governance and gross violations of human rights
The political emancipation of the Oromo and the ignominious defeat of Tigray/TPLF and their apologists in Ethiopia is a culmination of many years of struggle and sacrifice. Tens of thousands paid the ultimate prize while many others were arrested, liquidated, maimed, or displaced throughout Oromia.
The Oromia region has 21 districts, also called Aanaale or Woreda. The district is the third level of the administrative units of Ethiopia after the zones and the regional states. All the clusters of Oromo groups, which are a combination of the two confederacies, Borana Oromo and Barentu Oromo, contributed to the triumph over Tigrayan oppressors. In particular, the Borana who occupy the Borena zone of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya that stretches to the Tana Delta off the coast, contributed significantly to this struggle.
The reality is that the TPLF faced the united opposition of almost all Ethiopian nationalities.
The Tigray regime’s sunset days were characterized by politically instigated ethnic clashes and the massacre of Oromos in Nagelle, Udat, Borbor, Moyale, Bale and Hararge. Consequently, over one million Oromos, among them thousands of Boranas, were displaced. Losses from similar sporadic ethnic clashes, where the Tigray government openly sided with opponents, cannot be quantified.
The initial shock came with the cold-blooded murder of the legendary former governor of the Borana region in Ethiopia, Jatani Ali Tandhu, by TPLF operatives in a Nairobi Hotel on 2 July 1992. Former Saku Member of Parliament Jillo Falana reported that two assassins were holed up in the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi. The two men accused of killing Jatani were arrested, tried in the Kenyan courts and released under unclear circumstances. On 3 April 1996, Hussein Sora, the lawyer handling the Jattani case at the time, was also murdered. In April 1994, the Supreme Leader of the Borana, Boruu Guyyoo Boruu, was assassinated shortly after attending a peace meeting arbitrated by the TPLF. The assassination created differences and distance between the Borana customary leadership and the EPRDF officials.
By 1995, the Borana had been excluded from institutional politics and had lost important seasonal rangelands in Liiban and crucial water and pasture resources in Dirree.
Killings of Oromos were reported in the 1996 Kenya Human Rights Commission Report and in Oromo Commentary (1997). Other lists of the Oromo who were either killed or disappeared under the brutal TPLF regime appeared in Madda Walaabuu Press on 5 June 2018. Several Oromo refugees who sought asylum in Kenya under UNHCR protection were arbitrarily arrested and deported to Ethiopia on suspicion of being members of the OLF. “These recurring incidents have convinced many Boran leaders in Kenya that the Ethiopian agents are after the elimination of Borans both in Kenya and Ethiopia,” stated Oromia online.
There is no question that all the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia suffered under the TPLF dictatorship. However, the intensity of oppression experienced by the Oromia nation was exceptional in that the regime was bent on neutralizing Oromia’s vast human and natural resources and its centrally located landmass that shares boundaries with almost all the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. This exceptional subjugation of the Oromo demands an exceptional solution if it is to end.
Oromos who fled repression internationalised the Oromo struggle through massive demonstrations in various countries. In particular, the Oromo Olympian, Fayissa Lelissa became an international icon of the Oromo liberation movement, catapulting the Oromo struggle to the global arena with a simple symbolic sign of Oromo resistance as he approached the finishing line.
Oromo musicians have kept the fire burning during the high and low moments of the struggle. Oromo professionals have changed the toxic TPLF narrative and provided guidance. Oromo religious leaders have been steadfast in their prayers. This recognition of the impact of the Oromo diaspora would be incomplete without the mention of Jawar Mohamed and the Oromia Media Network, and Hamza Borana and Radio Daandii Haqaa (RDH) both of which have provided visibility and galvanised the struggle through sustained strategic communication. Sadly, both Jawar and Hamza Borana are now behind bars in Addis Ababa.
The Boranas rejected TPLF adventurism in favour of the Oromo Liberation Front. Consequently, for 27 years, the Borana endured state-sponsored terrorism (admitted by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the Ethiopian Parliament in 2018). Their oppression left a scar on all Borana leaders, individuals, and institutions. Everyone suffered, especially those kin at the frontline in Ethiopia and in Moyale, Sololo, Marsabit and Isiolo in Kenya, and in the entire Waso belt, Sololo, Moyale, Saku, Waso, southern Ethiopia and in the diaspora.
There is no question that all the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia suffered under the TPLF dictatorship.
The TPLF regime and their surrogates sought to disempower the Borana in all their dimensions including in politics, the economy, culture and security, and punished them by annexing their land, in particular the Wayama belt, which was grafted onto Region 5 of Somalia, a tactic to create a protracted and perpetual war in southern Ethiopia. The losses cannot be quantified.
The Borana made this great sacrifice out of their fervent desire to uphold and protect the overarching interests and heritage of the Oromo people. Borana leaders, elders and individuals of goodwill provided open and public diplomacy for the Oromo national liberation struggle. One example is the meeting between Gen. Hussein Mohamed Farah Aideed and the Borana leadership organized by the late Hussein Sora and Waso leaders from Isiolo. General Aideed, who was on an official visit, met elders from Moyale, Sololo, Marsabit, and Isiolo. It was a cordial meeting during which the Borana elders requested Gen Aideed to support the OLF. Gen Aideed, and later his son Hussein Aideed, established rear bases for the OLF in central and lower Shabelle in Somalia near the Indian Ocean port of Merca. These bases were the target of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006.
Boranas have therefore been at the forefront of the Oromo national liberation struggle. The next step is to now join their compatriots in consolidating the struggle by seeking comprehensive redress for the historical injustices manufactured by the TPLF, especially the territorial disputes concerning the Wayama belt that was annexed by the TPLF regime. This will put an end to the perennial conflict in that zone and sustain peacebuilding between Oromia and Region 5. The resolution of Borana grievances should be led and owned by a committee of Ethiopian Boranas with the tacit support of Kenyan Boranas.
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The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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