Poor Kenyans Sold Into Modern-Day Slavery in the Middle East12 min read.
Domestic workers who migrated to the countries of the Middle East in search of greener pastures are returning to Kenya in body bags as an indifferent government looks on.
Last month, Beatrice Waruguru’s body arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Saudi Arabia, almost a year after she was reported dead. Like many other young Kenyans seeking job opportunities in the Middle East, many of them women, her family says Waruguru left Kenya for Saudi Arabia in February 2021, and died under suspicious circumstances in December that year. The family maintains she was tortured. Waruguru worked as a househelp.
In 2010, Rose Adhiambo went to Beirut in search of a job at the age of 24, only to return home in a coffin six months later after being subjected to a catalogue of abuse by employers. Jane Njeri Kamau, 36, died under similarly harrowing circumstances in November 2014, also in Lebanon, where she had been employed as a househelp. Njeri fell ill while in police custody together with her friend, 22-year-old Margaret Nyakeru. Both had been detained after fleeing from their respective employers because of “ill-treatment”. They had been arrested in May of that year and held for five months. Nyakeru lived to tell the story.
The above cases suggest that the ill-treatment and abuse of Kenyan workers in the Gulf is not new. The problem does, however, appear to be have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis.
While the US remains the largest source of overseas remittances into Kenya, accounting for 63.2 per cent, the Middle East has emerged as an important rival in recent times. According to Kenyan Wall Street, remittances from Asia in the twelve-month period leading up to February 2022 amounted to US$42.5 million, with Saudi Arabia being the largest source (US$19.2 million), followed by Qatar (US$7.1 million) and the United Arab Emirates (US$4.6 Million).
Speaking to the media, Sharon Kinyanjui, WorldRemit Director for Europe, Middle East, and Africa Receive Markets, explained that this development is a consequence of growing rates of migration from Kenya to the Middle East, itself a reflection of increasing rates of unemployment, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, back home. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2021, total employment outside small-scale agriculture and pastoral activities stood at 17.4 million in 2020, down from the 18.1 million recorded in 2019. In the same period, the survey finds, wage employment in the private sector declined by 10 per cent from 2.1 million jobs in 2019 to 1.9 million jobs in 2020, and “informal sector employment is estimated to have contracted to 14.5 million jobs”.
In July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Simon Chelugui said that since January 2019, the ministry had facilitated the employment of over 87,784 Kenyans in the Middle East, the majority of them working in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers. Reports of Kenyan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia suffering physical and sexual abuse, or dying under controversial circumstances have continued to appear in the press.
Stella Nafula Wekesa left Kenya in August 2021 to work as a househelp on a two-year contract. She died on 10 February 2022. A medical report from Saketa Hospital in Saudi Arabia indicates that Stella succumbed to cardiopulmonary arrest, but her family has said she died after her employer refused to take her to hospital, and alleges that she had suffered mistreatment under previous employers.
Appearing before the Labour and Social Welfare Committee in July 2021, Labour Cabinet Secretary Chelugui told members of parliament that 93 Kenyans have been killed while working in the Middle East in the last three years. Most were in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE. The Departmental Committee on Labour and Social Welfare also noted that 1,908 distress calls were reported between 2019 and 2021, with 883 being reported in 2019-2020 and 1,025 in 2020-21.
But these young Kenyans are taking risks because states such as Saudi Arabia have an extremely poor record with regard to the labour rights and working conditions of domestic workers.
Chelugui had been summoned to explain the circumstances that led to the death of Melvin Kang’ereha in Saudi Arabia in 2020. Kang’ereha was also domestic worker, a job she obtained through United Manpower Services, a recruitment agency. She was reportedly abused and mistreated by her employer and did not return home alive.
In its 2021 report Amnesty International said migrant workers continued to be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation under Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system, with tens of thousands arbitrarily detained and subsequently deported. The situation is no better in Qatar, which has faced criticism of its human rights record in the build up to the 2022 World Cup. “In the decade since Qatar was awarded the right to host the World Cup, exploitation and abuse of these workers has been rampant, with workers exposed to forced labour, unpaid wages and excessive working hours,” reports Amnesty.
Lebanon, which is grappling with a deep economic crisis and growing poverty, is emerging as another problematic destination for Kenyan migrant domestic workers. The Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera, among other leading international media, have highlighted numerous cases that point to poor working conditions and abuse. As in the Gulf countries, many of the affected persons appear to be female domestic workers, underlining the gendered nature of the threats faced by Kenyan and other workers in the region: A report by the International Labour Office finds that when it comes to “women’s paid employment and treatment of migrants, the region is falling behind others”.
Why is labour migration to these countries so distinctly marked by exploitation, abuse and life-threatening conditions?
At the core of the problem is the notorious Kafala system, which the Council on Foreign Relations describes as a mode of sponsorship that gives private citizens and companies almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status. Institutionalized in most Arab Gulf countries and some neighbouring states like Lebanon, the Kafala system renders migrants vulnerable to the whims of employers who retain control over their legal residency and right to work. The consequences for women are particularly harsh. Those who manage to escape abusive work conditions do so without their passports, which remain in the custody of their tormentors. It becomes complicated for employment agencies to intervene as they would be in breach of contract.
Despite the structural nature of such victimization, a good deal more could be done by the sending countries to protect the growing number of migrants opting to work in the Middle East. It is revealing that working conditions and levels of harassment appear to vary considerably depending on the country of origin of the workers. According to the aforementioned ILO report, workers from the Philippines, for instance, receive higher pay. If on the one hand, such discrepancies are evidence of a racially segmented hierarchy of discrimination, they also reflect the extent to which individual governments are willing and/or able to guarantee the protection of their citizens abroad.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse. Consulates often do not arrange for flights back home and workers are often told to fundraise for the cost of their repatriation.
Mary Vimto, who went to Lebanon in 2014 through a broker who had no office, is now in her eighth year under the same employer. Mary’s experience has been good, but while she herself has not experienced harsh treatment, Mary tells me, “Kenyans are suffering in Lebanon”.
And does the consulate help?
“To say the truth, the consul told us he doesn’t have any connection with the Kenyan government, so he cannot help Kenyans easily,” says Mary, who uses social media to raise awareness about the difficulties faced by Kenyan women working in Lebanon. She goes on: “Because I do YouTube videos, I [learn about] problems from different ladies as the majority don’t get help from the consulate unless you pay some money. Assume you don’t have the money?” she asks.
Critics of the Kenyan government point to its failure to offer meaningful consular assistance to victims of abuse.
In a 14 January 2022 report, the Middle East Eye said that some 20 Kenyan women had camped for a week outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut seeking repatriation. Most of the women were domestic workers some of whom had suffered physical and sexual abuse that had worsened with the economic crisis in Lebanon and the COVID-19 outbreak. The situation of these domestic workers is complicated because Kenya does not have an embassy in Beirut. But even if it did, there is little reason to believe that the situation would be any better than in Saudi Arabia where the Kenyan mission has been of little help to Kenyan domestic workers in that country, at least according to Kenyans working or who have worked there.
Asked whether the Kenyan consulate offered her any help, Vera, another Kenyan victim of abuse by employers in Lebanon, told the Elephant that it didn’t, and that at one point, the officer she spoke to told her she had to stay put. Vera called her mother and informed her about her situation but neither the agency in Nairobi nor the Ministry of Labour offered any help when Vera’s mother visited their offices.
The other key weakness of government policy is the lack of regulation to control the activities of brokers—individuals and groups operating recruitment agencies (some of which are unregistered) that profit from enlisting domestic workers on terms that amount to modern-day slavery. For instance, one of the women who camped outside the Kenyan consulate in Beirut told the Middle East Eye that she travelled to Lebanon in November 2021, having been promised a salary of US$300 by her agents. Upon arrival, her employers offered her half the amount agreed—US$150. She couldn’t accept the work as the money wasn’t enough to cater for her family back in Kenya, and became desperate to return home.
Rose Adhiambo, whose death in 2010 is mentioned above, had been connected to an employer by Interlead Limited, which describes itself as a trusted and accredited agent, “a pioneering Human Capital Management (HCM) Solutions Company that provides manpower sourcing services for organizations locally and across the globe. . .” Adhiambo’s employer subjected her to conditions akin to slavery. Her body was found on the first-floor balcony of a building in Beirut’s Sahel Alma neighbourhood. “She is said to have fallen to her death from the sixth floor of a building in a bungled bid to escape from a house where she worked as househelp,” The Standard reported in September 2010. Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
The case of Vera, a returnee from the Gulf who was interviewed by The Elephant, is also illustrative. Vera went to Lebanon in August 2014 on a two-year contract, having deferred her education at Moi University in the first semester of her second year because she couldn’t afford to pay the fees. While at her home in Nairobi, she was approached by a woman who told her about opportunities to teach English in Lebanon. Abela Agencies, whose offices were at the time in Uganda House, Nairobi, arranged for Vera to travel to Lebanon. She was offered US$750; the contract was in Arabic.
Upon Vera’s arrival in Lebanon, she learnt she would instead be a domestic worker on a US$200 salary. “I was connected to a lady employer. The house was on the 16th floor in the Middle of Beirut. They have these big windows and flowers on the outside. I was okay with watering the flowers but my problem was cleaning windows from the outside. I couldn’t do that as it was risky,” the beginning of problems with her employer which culminated in her employer taking her back to the agency in Beirut. “I had not settled; I was not experienced as a housemaid. I couldn’t function well because what I got on the ground was not what I anticipated. I was also not well briefed,” Vera says.
Before attempting to flee, Adhiambo had called her family and informed them of her situation and her intention to escape.
Vera was employed by a second family for whom she worked for five months. She says that although they were not physically abusive, there were restrictions on what she could touch or eat, and she was only allowed to call home once or twice a month. When one of the sons in the family moved out, she was asked to work for his young family and the situation escalated; the wife would leave her locked up in the house and she was not allowed to operate the TV. “They would go eat out and leave me without food. They would then tell me there is milk powder and sugar and I can make tea for myself. She would bring bread on Monday and make me have it until the next week,” Vera says.
When the going got extremely tough, she demanded to return home. The response was harsh: “I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,” Vera recalls. When Vera fell ill due to the cold, she was not taken to hospital.
In November 2021, Francis Atwoli, the Secretary General of the Central Organization of Trade Unions, termed the working conditions in the Middle East as slavery and called for the closure of agencies enlisting Kenyans to work in the Gulf. “As a government, we should take care of our people. We are tired of watching our children coming back in coffins,” Atwoli said. However, Atwoli’s seriousness on the matter has been questioned given his preoccupation with succession politics rather than with the welfare of workers.
The government has rejected calls to ban the export of labour, with CS Chelugui arguing, “It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions.” Given the growing macro-economic importance of remittances from countries such as Saudi Arabia, it seems unlikely that calls for a ban will be heeded anytime soon, a fact which underscores the importance of addressing the need for better protections at the policy level.
There have been attempts by parliament to address the Middle East problem. In November 2021, the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Committee presented a report to parliament in which it accused recruitment agencies of riding on the absence of formal agreements or memorandums of understanding between Kenya and other countries to manipulate desperate jobless Kenyans.
“And where they exist, the agreement falls short of taking care of the interests of the workers,” the report by the Senate Labour and Social Welfare Services committee reads in part. The committee also reported that recruitment agencies and employers were taking advantage of the lack of policy and a legal framework on labour migration to exploit Kenyans working in the Middle East.
“It is only a small percentage of Kenyans who are suffering, while more than 100,000 Kenyans were under favourable conditions”.
It further reported that Kenyans working as domestic workers do not receive consular assistance to protect their rights. “With the growing numbers of migrants to the Middle East, there is need to streamline key prerequisite processes for effective governance,” the report says. It recommended the immediate suspension of all labour migration of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, where abuse and employment conditions akin to slavery are particularly rife.
When I asked him whether the government is doing enough to protect Kenyans in the Middle East, Senator Sakaja, chair of the Labour and Social Welfare Committee, told me it doesn’t and that, in fact, the government is squarely to blame for the problem. “First, the reason they go there is because there are no jobs here. There are more than 18,000 Kenyans in Saudi Arabia, the majority are domestic workers. But some have been successful,” he said.
Sakaja noted that most of those who have gone there through the Musaned system are okay. “In that system, you can check the house she is working in, the contacts and where the passport is,” he explained.
However, Sakaja spoke of the presence of rogue agents who run the business as human trafficking. “Because for every girl you send out, you are given almost US$1,500, it is as if they are putting potatoes in sacks. They don’t care. You should have insurance, their return ticket and be recognized by that [Musaned] system so that there is proper reporting,” he said, adding that all the agencies should be vetted afresh.
Sakaja argued that the Philippines has over 300,000 workers in Saudi Arabia but they don’t have cases of their people being killed or harassed because their government has set up a system to liaise with the government of Saudi Arabia. He also decried the shortage of personnel to handle consular issues. “We only have one labour officer called Juma. From Riyadh to Jeddah are thousands of kilometres. So, we said we must have more labour attachés and officers in Jeddah and Riyadh and safe houses in case of anything,” he said during the interview.
Sakaja also said that there are Kenyans languishing in deportation centres, and others who have been buried in cemeteries in Saudi Arabia. (Sakaja’s remarks in parliament are reported in the Hansard from page 23.)
Before resigning to join active politics, former Foreign Affairs Chief Administrative Secretary Ababu Namwamba said he was leading a review of the Diaspora Policy and, together with CS Chelugui, reviewing the bilateral legal instruments with all the Middle East countries “that are causing Kenyans a lot of trouble”.
A Labour Migration Management Bill was to be passed and a Migrant Workers Welfare Fund established following a government directive at the Cabinet level. The bill is still stuck in the National Assembly, while the fund is yet to be operationalized.
What is so difficult about establishing bilateral agreements, vetting agents and putting in place a system that works?
Interest groups are active in pretty much every sector in Kenya—individuals working in government or have influence in government who use their power for financial gain. If Haki Africa is to be believed, the migrant labour sector is no different. In a report published by the Daily Nation, the Mombassa-based national human rights organisation claimed one government official owned 10 labour recruitment agencies.
“I paid a lot of money, I bought you and you have to work for at least seven months for me to recover my money,”
So powerful are some recruitment agencies that they have reportedly bribed members of parliament to go slow on a clampdown, a claim corroborated by Senator Sakaja who went on to allege that some members of parliament and officials from the Ministry of Labour own the recruitment agencies. Cotu’s Atwoli is on record saying, “most of the recruitment agencies in the country are owned by senior people in government and operate with impunity”.
Needless to say, confirming such allegations is far from straightforward. It would nonetheless explain why, despite Sakaja’s report and former Nominated Senator Emma Mbura’s April 2015 petition in the Senate seeking better policies for Kenyan migrants in the Middle East, not much has been achieved.
Mbura, a human rights activist, had proposed that the government develop a framework that spells out the minimum entry-level salary, weekly and daily rest periods and signs a special employment contract with Saudi Arabia to protect Kenyan workers. The framework, she said, would also provide Kenyans with paid leave, non-withholding of passports and work permits, free communication and humane treatment.
Whatever the obstacles to reform, one thing is clear: a complete overhaul of the entire labour export industry is necessary because unless substantive reforms are undertaken, Kenyan migrant workers, particularly women, will continue to return to their families abused and mistreated. Unless we listen to those who live to share their tales, others will continue to arrive in body bags—a state of affairs no amount of foreign currency can justify.
This article is the first in a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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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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