Europe at War: Normal Service Has Resumed14 min read.
After an eight-decade hiatus, Europe is again at war, and as with all European conflicts past, the invasion of Ukraine is about business; when capitalists want something, they find an excuse to start a war in order to get it.
Nobody should really be surprised by the conflict taking place inside the Republic of Ukraine. In their long modern history, Europeans have been at war, or in preparation for war, or recovering from one, longer than they have been at peace.
Western Europe has been the key driver of conflicts at home and globally for the last three centuries. European armies have war graves in just about every country on every continent.
The only surprise is that they have been able to keep their warlike behaviour in check for the last seventy-seven years (if we exclude the fighting that followed the 1990 break-up of Yugoslavia), since the end of their 1939-1945 war that they spread to much of the rest of the world.
And even that peace was only because they managed, for once, to come to an agreement about the thing that drives their conflicts: money.
Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the United Nations did an important thing when he asserted the idea that Africans can also have an opinion on world events, drawing on the lived African historical experience.
In his February speech to the Security Council, while criticizing the then anticipated Russian military entry into Ukrainian territory, Ambassador Kimani urged Russian leaders to follow the example set by Africa’s post-colonial leaders and simply accept post-empire borders as they are. He also urged them to put their faith in international diplomacy, in order to resolve such disputes.
Deep down, these words will sound strange to European ears on all sides of the Ukraine dispute. The historical record shows that this is simply not how these people do business, and certainly not the white powers of Western Europe (which birthed other white powers like the United States and Canada). For them, war is the norm, and when they say “peace”, they mean their successful imposition of conditions to their liking on the side they have defeated.
Ambassador Kimani urged Russian leaders to follow the example set by Africa’s post-colonial leaders and simply accept post-empire borders as they are.
The conflict now located in Ukraine has been brewing for quite some time. It is an expression of a wider tension between the continuing ambitions of Western countries and economic masters against the interests of Russia in the various forms it has taken before, during and after becoming the world’s first, biggest and most powerful non-capitalist state.
There has never been a period of actual good relations between Russia and the Western European powers in over one hundred years. And places like Ukraine are where this has often played out. The great plains of Europe, lying between Russia proper and the powers of the West, made up of shifting, weaker states, have always been a buffer zone.
In the first phase, this was the fight between the German and Russian empires during the 1914-1918 war, which led to both the collapse of the Russian monarchy, and the dissolution of the German Empire.
The second phase was between 1920 and 1939, when various combinations of Western European powers sponsored rebellions, small wars and sabotage in an attempt to dislodge the communist-led Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) regime that had eventually taken over the Russian state following the collapse of the monarchy there.
This was only briefly suspended by the rise of fascism to state power in Spain, Italy and Germany, setting the conditions for the 1939-1945 war.
But this was in fact a war against Germany’s attempt to re-establish an empire to replace the one taken from it under the terms of the treaty ending the 1914-1918 war, much as it was dressed up as a war against the fascism of Hitler’s Germany. During that war, the capitalist Western powers were embarrassed to have had to make an anti-Hitler alliance with the very Soviet Union they had been trying to undermine militarily not a few years earlier.
There has never been a period of actual good relations between Russia and the Western European powers in over one hundred years.
The end of that war gave rise to the third phase, between 1946 and 1991, when the effort to remove the communists (whose reach had now expanded to control parts of central Europe) resumed and became an all-consuming fixation of Western statecraft. Now led by the United States, it re-oriented all Western political, diplomatic and military thinking to see the Soviet Union, and its satellites state, as the principal enemy.
It is in this phase, known as the Cold War, that institutions like the US-dominated military alliance known as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO: 1947), the well-known American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA: 1947) in the West, and the rival Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance: 1955) in Eastern Europe, were formed. This phase officially came to an end with the collapse and dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The Warsaw Pact dissolved in 1991 while, conversely, NATO has just kept on going.
Originally made up of 15 member states by 1955, and committed to mutual defence for fifty years, NATO has never properly explained why then it continues to exist. There are a number of contradictions. The Cold War itself did not last 50 years, and the NATO side won anyway, yet it has gone on to include fifteen new members, thus doubling its membership. What is more, the bulk of these new member states are former territories of the Warsaw Pact, with membership being offered to even more, such as Ukraine, which used to be part of the Soviet Union proper. In other words, NATO became twice as big as its original size after the reason for its creation no longer existed.
This brings us to the fifth phase running from 1991 to Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, which is a whole story in itself.
Russia’s unease with this expansion—expressed in a number of failed diplomatic initiatives, with Ukraine increasingly at the epicentre—was never really taken seriously. The immediate trigger begins with a 2014 coup in Ukraine that brings a pro-West government to power. There followed a series of measures against the Russian ethnic minority of Ukraine, as well as proscriptions against the symbols and legacy (both good and bad) Russia had left in Ukraine during the communist era. In particular, there was the public rehabilitation of the legacies of fascist organizations that had collaborated with Hitler’s forces during the German invasions of the 1940s, and the public tolerance of new fascist organisations. It is one issue to wonder why anyone should find it desirable to join a political identity with such a record. It is another issue to also question why such politics should be even permissible in a society claiming to be civilized.
How this invasion ends will be the start, and then the nature, of the sixth phase.
Africans are not obliged to take sides. But there is a human obligation to share knowledge and experience, as Ambassador Kimani has done. And any call for the avoidance of armed conflict is a good thing.
More than once in the last century, Europeans have dragged us into their conflicts in a bout of global racism.
Therefore, scenes of Africans being discriminated against on the Ukraine-Poland border as they tried—like many other peoples in Ukraine—to flee the looming conflict, should have been expected.
European culture is racist, and it did not become racist when it arrived in the Americas, Asia and Africa; it was its racism that took it there in the first place. What is more, Europeans actually began their racism among themselves.
Eastern Europe is Slavic country. “Slavic” is how the Eurasian people described themselves, as a concept of praise. However, these people had been conquered in the 9th Century (in other words, in yet another inter-European war), and had been reduced to what would now be called slavery.
So, Western European history ascribed a different meaning to the name. “Slavonic” was turned to mean “captive” in Latin. “Slav” is where the word “slave” in Western European languages comes from.
European racism—now directed at mainly non-white people—may be less expressive and performative at home as compared to the settler spaces it created overseas, because it is less directly in the presence of black people, and it is also more secure and confident in itself at home. But it is always there; it is just a matter of opportunity and circumstance (such as a border).
The Nazi Germany era was in many ways a condensed form of the already 400-year white supremacist project that had seen white Europeans forcibly settle themselves in the Americas from the arctic to the Antarctic, Australia, New Zealand, and all of southern Africa. In all cases, these incursions (that Hitler called “lebensraum”, literally, “space for living in”, when he applied them to Eastern Europe) began with genocides, and were sustained on them.
European culture is racist, and it did not become racist when it arrived in the Americas, Asia and Africa.
Being hemmed in militarily, Hitler’s Germany found it necessary to massively mobilize its population. It did this by appealing to their racism by victimizing a significant minority in an acute intensification of perhaps the longest standing racial prejudice in European public life; vilifying people of Jewish descent, as well as picking on its neighbours.
Underneath the usual romanticisation of the conflicts among Europeans lies the story of coal and iron. Until perhaps the 1960s, the Alsace-Lorraine region, which lies where the lands of France and Germany meet, held the largest known deposits of iron ore in the Western world. Together with the abundant supplies of the coal in the neighbouring regions, this created the opportunity for the bulk production of perhaps the most significant material to industrialization—steel.
On top of the already mentioned 1914-1918 British-German war that led to Germany’s loss of its entire global empire as well as territory closer to home, and the 1939-1945 British-French-American-Russian war against Germany, Italy, and Japan, which left Europe militarily split in half for the following four decades, there had already been the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 which had ended with German occupation of France. All these were essentially conflicts over the Alsace–Lorraine region.
It was the site of the beginnings of a reversal of fortunes for Germany in its big gamble to also invade the Soviet Union in 1941. This gave rise to the heroic politics of the Americans leading the massive landings on the shores of Western Europe in a race for Berlin, the German capital. The real panic was to try and capture Germany before the Russians advancing from the East did. Perhaps they feared that Russia would reclaim those territories it conceded to Germany as part of the process of pulling out of the 1914-1918 war in which the then new communist regime had felt it had no side.
Underneath the usual romanticisation of the conflicts among Europeans lies the story of coal and iron.
This is why from the day of the German defeat in 1945, up until its reunification in 1990, all the countries that had fought Hitler’s armies had their armies in the ridiculous situation of each controlling a cramped sector of Germany’s capital Berlin, while Berlin as a whole was itself deep inside Soviet-controlled territory (because the Soviet Union’s Red Army had overrun German territory before the Western armies got there).
Russia has always been governed by a cultural tension between its actual Asiatic roots, and an underlying tendency to embrace a more western European identity. This “Westernizer tendency” (as it is known) played a role in taking the monarchy to the degree of crisis the Russian Empire had. In trying to become more like the more industrialised powers to the west, Imperial Russia had become financially indebted to them.
The socialist revolution under the communist party put an end to this, and in so doing saved the Russian state from collapse.
All foreign investments as well as locally owned private concerns were nationalized. Furthermore, key elements of Slavic culture, such as language, were synthetized into education and science in a way that allowed for the rapid progress of the spread of education and technological knowledge. This enabled the country to make a rapid leap forward technologically, and become an industrial and military power by the middle of the last century.
The political leaders were also adept at keeping the country’s enemies at bay through military and diplomatic manoeuvring. The coming to power of the Russian communists in October 1917 only intensified this, because under the Russian monarchy, Russia had been in alliance with the big powers of the West (France and Britain), in fighting Germany in the 1914-1918 war. It was of great use partly because, being to the east of Germany, Russia formed a whole other front. Those powers were very annoyed when Russia’s new rulers pulled out of the conflict.
Russia has always been governed by a cultural tension between its actual Asiatic roots, and an underlying tendency to embrace a more western European identity.
From that moment, the fight was no longer over the respective profit-seeking factions of several empire states seeking to grab valuable territory and markets for themselves. It became a fight between all such factions collectively on the one side, versus a huge country taken over by a political party that was opposed to private profit-making to begin with, on the other.
But with this loss of a crucial ally in the ongoing war, three things were at stake for the powers to the west. Germany, which had only really united as one nation in the 1871 war (minus Austria; that would be organized later by Hitler), now had more opportunities and room to manoeuvre in the conduct of the war. There was the immediate possibility of Germany taking over all the installations and resources that the Russian forces had left scattered all over the eastern front from Finland, Siberia to the central European plains.
Second, the substantial aforementioned economic and war debts that the economic powers to the west had over broke imperial Russia were now under threat of not been honoured.
Finally, the prospect of the communist party finally taking power, especially in a major country, raised the prospect of communism (by this time a movement with nearly eighty years of struggle behind it) gaining popularity in all the major capitals of Europe. For (mainly Western European) capitalist governments, this would be a political disaster.
Germany lost the war anyway. And, as said, the big powers to the west immediately turned their attention to supporting a combination of Russian forces trying to remove the communists from power in a growing Russian civil war between 1920 and 1922. Eventually, after deploying a few military expeditions, and even engineering a couple of coup attempts, they gave up and went home. But they were to continue sponsoring Russian exile groups in sporadic incursions and attacks on the growing communist state for many years after, until 1939 when Britain and the United States, principally, needed to make an about-turn and form an alliance with the very same Soviet Union they had been undermining, against Hitler.
It paid off well; the record shows that Nazi Germany’s decisive defeat took place on the Eastern front, at great human and material cost to the Soviet Union. Russian losses to Nazi Germany exceeded 26 million people, including 10 million soldiers.
Therefore, beyond the earlier historic rivalries, by 1945 significant countries of Western Europe were collectively hostile to the Soviet Union, the culmination of a process that had begun shortly after the communist takeover of power in 1917, but which also predated it.
Indeed, as soon as the ’39-’45 hostilities ended in Europe with the capture of Berlin, the Western powers immediately reverted to a stance of armed hostility towards the Soviet Union. It is said that one legendary American General called Patton had to be removed from command because he was calling for an immediate attack on the Soviet forces in Germany, followed by the invasion of Moscow. This stance has effectively continued even after the demise of communist rule in Russia. The old game of lusting after the territories of the Balkans and beyond has resumed.
This then, is the Russian experience of Western powers, right from the start of the last century, whether as the Russian Empire, the communist state, or as the Russian Federation.
After being besieged by Western debt, what began as a free-for-all among the competing ambitious ruling classes of the various European empires developed into a quasi-unity of those ruling classes in a joint attempt to prevent the spread of communism among the ordinary people. Once that was achieved, they all went back to trying to have economic advantage over the weaker parts Europe. These were the 1990s wars over the re-division of the Baltic states, and their seduction into the Western debt-based economic system.
Whether democratic or not, any Russian head of state would do well to understand NATO’s interest in Eastern European countries now bordering Russia in this context. President Vladimir Putin, whatever one may think of him, certainly holds a sense of this history.
The old game of lusting after the territories of the Balkans and beyond has resumed.
Russia fears it may be seen as the next prize; the very name “Ukraine” literally means “border” or “frontier” in some Slavic languages. The only new development is that wealthy Russians probably also harbour the same ambitions, and wish to expand their own place in the Russian economy.
All this tells us Africans four critical things.
First, that these wars are about business: making money, or seizing territory to make money from it later. When capitalists want something, they find an excuse to start a war in order to get it. These recurrent conflicts were only suspended for the last eighty years with the creation of a trade mechanism that enabled interested European countries to access resources for their domestic industries without having to also physically control the territory. This mechanism began life as the European Coal and Steel Commission, later renamed the European Economic Commission, and then renamed again the European Commission. Today, it is known as the European Union.
To Europeans, fighting is normal. And they are very good at it, on the whole. They manufacture their own weapons, and make money out of that, too. War, for the European, is a relatively sustainable activity.
Even modest-sized European cities will have a monument (if not whole cemeteries) to the dead of more than one war. There are about 68,000 war memorials in the UK alone, and 3,000 war cemeteries in France.
Tiny Belgium holds about 800 military cemeteries for the 1914-1918, and the 1939-1945 wars alone. It is why military-style language (e.g. “to pull a flanker”, and “to steal a march”, in common English) peppers a lot of casual Western speech. It is why most Western armed forces retain standing divisions trained to be quickly transported far abroad, and to fight in terrain very unlike their home territories. Europeans (and white America) are warmongers. That is the historical and contemporary record, quite contrary to the political propaganda they produce in their media and education systems.
The second lesson is that among white powers (of which the Russian state is one) there is never any real principle involved. Millions died fighting “Nazis”, only for the politicians that sent them to their deaths to recruit those very same Nazi leaders into their own programmes.
When capitalists want something, they find an excuse to start a war in order to get it.
For example, one Arthur L. Rudolph was a German Nazi-era scientist brought to the United States in 1945 for his rocket-making expertise. He has even been honoured by the United States National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA). He is considered to be the “father” of the Saturn V rocket upon which the Apollo moon-landing programme depended.
More directly, one Adolf Heusinger, a German general who served as chairman of the NATO Military Committee from 1961 to 1964, had in an earlier life been a colonel in Hitler’s General Staff, and had been directly involved in planning the invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union also grabbed from defeated Germany as many Nazi scientists as it could lay its hands on. But their case was handled more like a reparative abduction than the offer of an entirely new comfortable life.
Today’s enemy may become tomorrow’s friend, and today’s friend was the enemy yesterday. It is just their culture of politics, war and diplomacy. Get involved at your own risk.
Third, that when these giants fight, they do so on an industrial scale. Their conflicts often spill across other borders and territories. Their weaponry brings mass death, and their logistical and human resource needs often suck in people who have very little to do with the actual cause of the conflict. In Africa, it is only Ethiopia that has come anywhere near this scale of war-making.
Today’s Democratic Republic of Congo was plundered for the rubber and copper needed to make tires and bullet casings for the 1914-1918 war. The Lumumba-led independence government fell victim to the Cold War rivalry over Congo’s uranium deposits as part of the America vs. Soviet Union nuclear arms race.
Hundreds of thousands of black Africans faced off and killed each other as loyal soldiers of the German and British armies fighting for German Tanganyika and British Uganda and Kenya, respectively.
Ukrainians, like all peoples everywhere, matter. That is why its real independence from either power is important to the rest of the world. For the Western powers, it would be nice to have Ukraine, but Russia as a whole, is the real prize.
Whatever one may wish to now call it, Ukraine is a place of wealth and potential profit. It is the second largest country in Europe by area, holding significant reserves of uranium, titanium, manganese, iron, mercury and coal.
It is a world leader in the production and export of a whole range of agricultural products (corn, potatoes, rye, wheat and eggs, all of which are central to the processed food industry).
In Africa, it is only Ethiopia that has come anywhere near this scale of war-making.
Ukraine is also a country with a significant body of advanced industrial knowledge.
And as with the Alsace-Lorraine, and the earlier wars to dislodge the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from power, this is about Western corporations (and Russian oligarchs) looking to increase their wealth.
This is not an African story, but it is certainly beginning to look like one. In the history of the conflicts of the modern world, certain zones stand out as having suffered from the accident of being located where strategic resources were to be found. Before the DRC, there was Western Europe and the Middle East. With lots of minerals and fertile land, all that is missing in Ukraine is a population too weak, too poor, and too divided to think and speak for itself. War, autocratic government, and CIA-sponsored “good governance” workshops have been known to supply those.
Therefore, Ambassador Kimani’s advice notwithstanding, Africans are better off staying away from all this, just as Ukraine would have been wiser to stay out of the Russia-NATO rivalries.
While the white powers were not fighting in Ukraine, they were still promoting fighting somewhere else. Now that they have also kicked off in Europe, it means their unusual break of eight decades of peace is finally over. “Normal service has resumed”.
Europe is at war with Europe, in Europe, once again.
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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.
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.
Mukami Kimathi and the Scramble to Own Mau Mau Memory
The struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation resurfaces with the burial of Mukami Kimathi.
May the scramble for memorialisation commence. The body of Dedan Kimathi’s widow was barely in the ground before the wannabe Mau Maus began using her to score cheap political points. The line between “rebel” and “loyalist” is blurred once again, as it was during and after the liberation struggle. Just as hotly contested is the struggle for control of Mau Mau memory and memorialisation. Who owns Kimathi? Who owns Mukami? The usual suspects, most of whom had nothing to do with Mau Mau, came running to stake their claim.
Kenyan politicians love a good death—captive audience, media spotlight, the chance to dress up, and a feast to follow. Predictably, they made a meal out of this one.
Attempts to control the narrative kicked off at the burial, and in tributes reported in the media. Raila Odinga and William Ruto went head to head, the president declaring: “Mama Mukami Kimathi courageously withstood the brutality of colonial oppression, proudly wore the scars of battle, and bore the terrible losses of war with admirable fortitude.” Whether she actually took part in physical combat, as this implies, is neither here nor there.
Fans of Raila took to Twitter to claim that he had taken better care of Mukami and her family than his political opponents had. “Baba used to look out for the late Field Marshall Mukami Kimathi. “Hao wengine ambao wanajiita [those others who call themselves] ‘sons of Mau Mau’ never met Mukami until she passed away.” Other tweeps spoke of a “showdown” between former Mungiki leader Maina Njenga and Vice President Rigathi Gachagua at the burial. “Who is the true son of Mau Mau between Maina Njenga and Riggy G?”. One young woman scathingly noted: “There is nothing Mau Mauish about Mukami Kimathi ‘s burial. That MC was the worst very sad. Watoto wa home guards have hijacked the burial.”
This story isn’t really about Mukami as a person or as an activist. It doesn’t need to be. It discusses what has been projected onto her, and will continue to be projected onto her and Kimathi, in the slippery process of memorialising Mau Mau (more properly, the Land and Freedom Army; its members never called it Mau Mau). It also draws some parallels between Mukami and Winnie Mandela.
As Julie MacArthur wrote in the introduction to her edited volume Dedan Kimathi on Trial, “Kimathi’s legacy was never a simple exemplar of patriotic martyrdom, and his place in the postcolonial imagination reflected the complicated legacy of the Mau Mau rebellion: at times suppressed or downplayed, at others lauded and filled with mythic importance, but always contested.” This landmark 2017 book ran five “critical essays” by scholars—alongside a transcript of Kimathi’s trial—from primary documents which MacArthur had discovered. It was an exciting find of archival papers everyone had “long thought lost, hidden or destroyed”. She described how, when Nelson Mandela visited Kenya for the first time, in July 1990, he was surprised to find that Eloise Mukami (as MacArthur calls her) had not been invited to the festivities, and “lamented” her absence. He also queried the absence of a proper grave for Kimathi, and said he would have liked to have paid his respects there, as one freedom fighter to another. The face of then President Moi, as he listened to this homage, was reportedly stony. At that time, Kimathi was not considered the right kind of hero. Mandela had publicly embarrassed him.
Winnie and Mukami
It is fitting that we refer to Mandela here, since there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Winnie and Mukami. Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right. Both led underground networks, of ANC activists in Winnie’s case, and (if reports are correct) of Mau Mau fighters and supporters in Mukami’s case. The two couples both spent more time apart than they did together, exchanging precious letters. “He talked with letters,” Mukami told interviewer Wambui Kamiru; they used a secret code. The Mandelas, too, relied on letters, albeit heavily censored ones. It can also be argued that Winnie suffered more on the outside, during her husband’s 27-year incarceration, than he did on the inside. She was constantly hounded, held under house arrest, vilified and spied upon. In May 1969 she was arrested and jailed for 491 days, 400 of them in solitary confinement. In his new biography Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage Jonny Steinberg writes that by the mid-1960s “the security police expended astonishing energy to render her life unlivable”. This included hounding those close to her; for example, her brother Msuthu was arrested and jailed for vagrancy. Then, when it became known that Winnie had taken other lovers, even before Nelson was imprisoned on Robben Island, she was vilified as a cheating wife. A man in the same circumstances would have escaped blame. If anything, it would have enhanced his reputation. (Kimathi reportedly had many lovers in the forest, while banning his fighters from cohabitation outside marriage.)
Both were iconic as the wives of famous freedom fighters, though Winnie differed from Mukami in being a huge political figure in her own right.
To my knowledge Mukami was never accused of being unfaithful (is that even possible for a widow?) but some of this also applies to her. She suffered for decades after Dedan was executed, living in poverty and struggling to bring up four children alone (some reports say ten). Wambui Kamiru (widow of the late Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore) refers to “the cost she paid for freedom” in her unpublished Master’s thesis “Memorialising the Kimathi Family”, based largely on informal interviews with Mukami at her home in South Kinangop. (My thanks to Wambui for sharing a copy of this long ago.) Mukami’s biographer, Wairimu Nderitu, has also described her struggles and incarceration, ultimately in Kamiti Prison.
However, accounts of Mukami’s time in the forest do not add up. While some writers including Nderitu claim that she spent years in the forest, led a platoon and was quarter-master of a fighters’ camp, other accounts contradict this. Writes Kamiru: “Although Mukami had initially followed Kimathi into the forest in 1952, when their eldest son Waciuri became a toddler, Kimathi asked her to leave the forest so that the child and the family to come would be raised outside of war.” Which is it? In the weeks and months to come, we can expect more “active forest fighter” tributes to Mukami. Her story is already becoming embellished.
Why Mau Mau memorialisation is still contested
It shouldn’t be necessary to repeat this, 60 years after independence. Mau Mau was not a unifying movement. It remains an open wound on Kenya’s body politic. Its sheer ambiguity makes it so, and no single figure was more ambiguous than Kimathi. Kenyan scholar Simon Gikandi, writing in the MacArthur collection of essays cited earlier, calls him “neither the demonic figure of colonial discourse, nor the heroic subject of radical nationalism, but what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss famously called a ‘floating signifier’, a term intended ‘to represent an undetermined quantity of signification’, but is in ‘itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning’. Kimathi is a signifier with a value, but what this value represents is variable and open to multiple interpretations”. In other words, anyone can project onto him whatever they wish. He represents whatever they want him to. Now people will do the same, to a much lesser extent, with Mukami.
Another problem is this. Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists. Many may have moved up and down a spectrum that had Mau Mau and loyalists at each extreme, ducking and diving when necessary. Naturally, many of their descendants don’t want to be reminded of this; it’s all too painful. Historian Daniel Branch has described the complex blurring of allegiances in Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya. He notes, for example: “In late 1952 and through much of 1953, Home Guards repeatedly assisted Mau Mau units”. As in any civil conflict (and yes this became one, despite what the naysayers claim), some people play a double game in order to survive. They may also, as Branch describes, join a particular side not for ideological reasons but in order to settle private scores. As he put it, “The violence of the conflict became privatised as individuals assumed the labels of Mau Mau or loyalist to pursue rivals who had declared for the other group.”
Millions of Kenyans have forebears who were what I call neither-nors – neither Mau Mau nor so-called loyalists.
Why do I refer to naysayers? Because the struggle within a struggle (including that between Kimathi and his own fighters, some of whom turned against him) is dismissed by some as yet another colonial invention. All this messy complexity is now brushed aside, in an effort to present a seamless metanarrative of freedom struggle—not least by the state.
Moreover, the entire population of “peasants” did not rise up and join Mau Mau, despite Ngugi’s best attempts to claim that they did. (Calling them peasants is a tad derogatory, isn’t it? Pastoralists, for one, are not peasants, but they too revolted against the colonial state at various times. And Kimathi had been a teacher, not a peasant.) If some readers are harrumphing as they read this, and want to accuse me of heresy, that proves my point: Mau Mau is still utterly divisive, but critique is healthy and necessary, in this or any other discussion of the past. The critical essays in MacArthur’s volume, written by eminent Kenyan and British scholars with a Foreword by Ngugi and Micere Githae Mugo, attest to that. Many other Kenyan scholars have previously written critically about Mau Mau, notably E.S. Atieno Odhiambo, Bethwell Ogot and others in Mau Mau and Nationhood. Ogot has argued that the narrow focus on Mau Mau as the sole actors in the independence struggle obscures the role that others (such as trade unionists, intellectuals) played in achieving the goal of uhuru. He wrote of how “the heroes and heroines are identified with the forest fighters in the 1950s, and the rest of our freedom fighters are supposed to suffer a second death like Fanon”. The anticolonial movement, he argues, was much larger than that. Most scholars would agree: the uncomfortable fact is that Mau Mau failed militarily, and may even have delayed independence.
Let’s take the contradictions and anomalies that swirl around Jomo Kenyatta. He is hailed as the founding “father of the nation”, while Mau Mau is simultaneously seen as the foundation story. Yet there is no evidence that Jomo was ever in Mau Mau. How can these two opposites be reconciled? Though he swung between denouncing Mau Mau and occasionally embracing it, Jomo declared it to be “a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again” (speech at Githunguri, September 1962, just after he was released from detention). Scholar Marshall Clough has said of this: “Kenyatta’s use of criminal analogies and disease metaphors directly recalled the British discourse on Mau Mau, and suggested not only a political repudiation of the movement but a certain degree of personal distaste.” (I quote from his chapter in Mau Mau and Nationhood.) As I have previously written in the MacArthur volume, “On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.” Those purposes included the urgent need to unify a divided post-conflict nation. They included the need to obscure his own role (or lack of it) in the freedom struggle, at least that part of it involving actual physical combat. He also wanted to fend off what he saw as veterans’ unrealistic demands for compensation, free land and jobs, and possibly to avoid the expense of erecting memorials to liberation heroes. That only started once Mwai Kibaki came to power and embarked on a mausoleum-building spree.
Let me quote from the horse’s mouth. My late informant Paul Thuku Njembui was a war veteran with the best of credentials—he claimed to have sheltered Kimathi in his home for a while. He spent seven years in British detention camps, where he learned some English. In conversation with me (we spent many hours talking at his home in Karima Forest near Nyeri; funnily enough Wambui Kamiru was briefly my research assistant), he was adamant that Jomo was never in Mau Mau. “Kenyatta was not a Mau Mau,” he told me. “Who could have become the first president of Kenya? Is it Kenyatta or Kimathi? Kimathi continued fighting for freedom up to the end of his life, but Kenyatta surrendered, he betrayed his people … Mau Mau fought for land and freedom, but it is the children of the loyalists who got the land. The truth only comes from us [veterans], other sources may not have been accurate.”
“On coming to power, Jomo Kenyatta ushered in a period of orchestrated amnesia about Mau Mau, which served his political purposes.”
It is a refrain often heard from veterans, both living and dead. It belies the Jomo-led official mantra “We all fought for freedom”; that is, all communities, not just Gikuyu and the few members of other ethnic groups who joined Mau Mau. Thuku also believed that Kenyatta told the British to execute Kimathi: “He was there to say [to the British]: ‘Kill Kimathi! Let him die!’ Because he knew that he would [otherwise] have no chance of being president.”
That was obviously a myth, but it served a purpose in Thuku’s mind: it made sense of the past. His past. Myth forms an important part of what scholars call regimes of memory, which simultaneously feature “forgetting”, myth, occlusion, absences, contradictions, and often a surfeit of memory. Memory can be both individual and collective. It is vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, as French historian Pierre Nora famously wrote, particularly where the construction and reconstruction of nationhood and national history are concerned. His description of memory as “susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” applies to Mau Mau memory, as Clough has previously pointed out. Equally, it also applies to its memorialisation, which has taken on a life of its own.
This is where it gets doubly tricky: when the government of the day uses select narratives to construct the official “story of the nation”. Nowhere is the struggle to produce a coherent story of Kenya, most particularly the story of Mau Mau, more apparent than in the permanent history exhibition at Nairobi National Museum, which opened in 2010. (See my chapter on “The Production and Transmission of National History” in Annie E. Coombes, Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene, Managing Heritage, Making Peace. History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya.) In the “Armed Struggle” room, Kenyatta’s role in the fight for independence is fudged. When I last visited some years ago, I asked a guide what connection, if any, there was between Kenyatta and Mau Mau, since this was not at all clear from the display. “He led Mau Mau but he pretended that he did not” came the reply. Oddly, his photograph was not included in a display showing three of the Kapenguria Six, who were jailed with Kenyatta. The caption read: “The militant leaders of the Mau Mau movement” rather than members of the militant wing of the Kenya African Union (KAU). Other questionable features of the exhibition included displays presenting “collaborators” and “resisters” as binary opposites, and a video showing interviews with Mau Mau veterans, who all happened to be Gikuyu—thereby contradicting the line that Mau Mau was multi-ethnic. These displays may have changed since I was there.
And so we have returned, with the burial of Mukami, to the idea that “We all fought for freedom”. This is not said in so many words, but it is implied, and is being relayed once again as a unifying message from a new president to a divided nation.
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