Kenya’s Internally Displaced: An Enduring Colonial Legacy12 min read.
Whoever between Raila Odinga and William Ruto takes the presidency of this country after 9/8 must find the moral courage to finally break with a colonial legacy that has relegated thousands of our co-citizens to a life of unending misery and despair.
The long-awaited rains are finally here and yesterday’s dry, cracked black cotton soil that we here call kagenyo has turned into a gluey, slippery mess that sticks three inches thick to the soles of your shoes. I am struggling to keep my sneakers on as I make my way up the path to Wanjĩra’s* homestead.
Wanjĩra greets me at her gate and stands there, not showing any signs of inviting me in. Her handshake is firm and her manner brisk, a big woman in a body fed mainly on stodge. Clearly, Wanjĩra is waiting for me to get to the point of my visit so, in the manner of country people, and to break the ice, I begin by observing that, thank God, the rains are finally here. Wanjĩra turns her head, points her chin at the field behind her wooden cottage and says that she’s wondering whether she should bother to start over again. She had planted the early-maturing Pioneer variety of maize seed in anticipation of the long rains but nothing had come of that and the shoots had died in the ground, beaten down by the unyielding sun. Will the rains be sufficient this time round? There follows an awkward silence; where does one begin when one is intruding on the already difficult lives of those displaced by politically instigated violence?
I had learnt only recently that there were internally displaced people living not five kilometres down the road from me, further inland, and I determined to find out their circumstances, concerned that there could be desperate cases—like those I had found at Shalom—living within my community. That is how I ended up at Wanjĩra’s gate, led there by her orphaned niece, a twenty-something young woman with an infant strapped to her back.
Wanjĩra was born and raised in Londiani, Kericho County. Like many Kikuyus of his generation, Mũreithi, Wanjĩra’s father, had been uprooted from his home in Mũrang’a and moved to a colonial village under the colonial government’s villagisation programme that, by the end of 1955, had “relocated some one million Kikuyu into 804 fortified, policed and concentrated villages from their scattered homesteads that were in turn demolished”. From here, having been fingerprinted and with a mbugi around his neck, “no longer a shepherd but one of the flock”, Mũreithi was removed from the kiugũ, the cattle pen, as Wanjĩra sardonically described the village, shoved onto the back of a lorry and transported to Londiani on the other side of the country, never again to return to Mũrang’a. Mũreithi’s final destination was a settler’s farm where he earned a monthly wage of two shillings and fifty cents as a farm labourer. He married and brought up Wanjĩra and her siblings on that pittance but was never able to find the wherewithal to buy land of his own when independence came. A son had done well enough to purchase a quarter-acre in Karamton, Nyandarua County, and this is where Mũreithi was buried when he died.
Born in 1958 and now with a family of her own, Wanjĩra worked in the Londiani Forest planting trees in exchange for permission to grow crops in the clearings, while also slowly building up a herd of 38 cattle that she would graze in the forest. But the violence that broke out following the 2007 general election would prove to be the final straw for Wanjĩra and her family; she and her husband gathered up their eight children and fled Londiani. When the couple married, Wanjĩra’s father-in-law had made room on his one-acre piece of land for the couple to establish a home and raise a family. But beginning in early 1992, the family’s hold on life became increasingly tenuous as the clashes that broke out in late 1991 in Tinderet in Nandi District spread like wild fire to Londiani and other parts of the Rift Valley. The family hunkered down and survived the onslaught but found their lives once again threatened by the politically motivated ethnic violence that followed in the wake of the December 1997 elections. They survived that spate of violence too and carried on with their lives.
But a decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death. Living under constant threat of violence took its toll on Wanjĩra’s parents-in-law and both died within months of each other. Hardly were they buried on their one acre but Wanjĩra and her Kikuyu neighbours were surrounded by hostile youths blowing cow horns and wielding bows and arrows. The herd she had so painstakingly built over time was driven away before her very eyes and her home was razed to the ground. Wanjĩra and her family fled without a backward glance, her husband with three arrow wounds in his side.
A decade later, starting in April of 2007, Wanjĩra says that they began receiving anonymous written demands that they move away or face certain death.
Unlike the many displaced who ended up at the Nakuru Show Ground where disease was rife and the hardship beyond endurance, Wanjĩra and her husband took their family to Gatundu North. Someone had told them that they could live and grow their food inside Kieni Forest in exchange for providing labour to plant trees. From 2008 to 2013, the family joined those who had moved into the forest following the 1992 clashes, living under plastic sheeting in a river valley inside the forest, co-existing with marauding elephants as best they could until the government sent in the General Service Unit to evict them. Following a stand-off, the 805 families squatting in the forest were eventually paid 400,000 shillings each by the government in lieu of land, and it is this payment that enabled Wanjĩra and her husband, together with four other families that had also taken refuge in Kieni Forest, to buy land in Ndaragwa in Nyandarua County.
Like much of the land in this part of Nyandarua County that borders Laikipia East, the land on which Wanjĩra and her family finally settled had been occupied by a British settler in colonial times. The 3,400-acre ranch was eventually sold in 1964 to a group of Kenyans who ran it commercially for almost two decades, growing wheat and keeping livestock, before they subdivided the land among themselves. Over time, some of the owners have further subdivided their farms, bequeathing the parcels to their offspring or selling them to those like Wanjĩra’s family looking for land on which to (re)settle.
Just a kilometre or so down the road from Wanjĩra’s homestead, one such landowner sold some 30 acres of his land to the government to be subdivided amongst victims of the 2007/2008 post-election violence, each family receiving two and a quarter acres. Waithiageni does not know exactly how old she is. Ndiathomire, she tells me, I did not go to school. But she thinks she was about eight years old when her father moved the family from Mũrang’a to what was then Kisumu District. Waithiageni’s father had left his family behind and moved to Nakuru to work on a settler’s farm. Come independence, he applied to be resettled on the Koru Settlement Scheme and moved his family there.
Waithiageni now lives by herself in a corrugated iron shack by the side of a dusty track, having been chased off her father’s 20 acres at Koru and losing her only son in the 2007/2008 post-election chaos. To survive, the now elderly Waithiageni depends on casual work, when it can be found, and on the kindness of her neighbour Nyagũthiĩ, a mother of two grown-up daughters who escaped the violence at Londiani in late 2007.
A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves. The closest source of water is a trek downhill to the Pesi River, the nearest school miles away and the health centre further beyond. No matatu comes this way and a boda boda ride to the trading centre along the Nyeri-Nyahururu road will set you back 300 shillings, a day’s wage in these parts. The 25,000 shillings they had each received to build a home and the 10,000 shillings start-up capital did not stretch far enough and eight of the twelve families left within the year to find a more hopeful livelihood elsewhere.
Kenya is a state party to the Great Lakes Pact, one of the few international agreements that address displacement in a comprehensive and holistic manner. Kenya domesticated the Pact’s Protocol on the Protection and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons through an act of parliament on 31 December 2012. It establishes a legal framework for the protection of IDPs through the incorporation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement into domestic law.
A government vehicle dropped Waithiageni and her neighbours off in this shrubland in 2014, leaving them to get on as best as they could with no shelter and nowhere to relieve themselves.
Specifically, Section 9 of the IDP Act foresees that “The Government shall create the conditions for and provide internally displaced persons with a durable and sustainable solution in safety and dignity. . .” and that, among others, the following conditions for durable solutions shall apply: long-term safety and security; enjoyment of an adequate standard of living without discrimination; access to employment and livelihoods; and access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property.
In November 2013, Nelson Ributhi Gaichuhie, then Chairperson of the Departmental Committee on Administration and National Security, made a statement in parliament to the effect that the government had fully complied with Section 9 (3) of the IDP Act, saying that those affected had been provided with relief food and decent housing. However, to put it in Kenyan parlance, things on the ground are different. Eight years after they were dumped by the government in their new “home”, Wathiageni and her neighbours still live in what can only be described as hovels lacking even the most basic of amenities. Eight long years on, the government has yet to undertake the necessary surveying to allow for subdivision of the land into individual parcels and so, unable to work their land, and without title, they live huddled together on a bare patch by the roadside, walking miles each day in search of casual labour on other people’s farms.
As for Wanjĩra’s family, the 400,000 shillings that it finally received in compensation was just about enough money to buy two acres of land and put up a small wooden structure to house the family of ten. After years of ill health compounded by the hellish living conditions in Kieni Forest, Wanjĩra’s husband died in 2016 and was buried on his land. Her first-born son followed soon after. Her seven surviving children are now grown and two have established their homes on the family’s land. Wanjĩra says that, having lost everything in Londiani, rebuilding what the family lost without resources seems like an insurmountable challenge. On a neighbouring farm is a neatly tended field with onions planted in zai pits. Wanjĩra tells me the land is leased by a farmer with the means to bring water up from the Pesi River about a kilometre away. Wanjĩra hasn’t those means; she must wait for the rains.
The second of the Great Lakes Pact’s ten protocols that is particularly relevant to the internally displaced is the Protocol on the Property Rights of Returning Persons that requires member states to provide legal protection for the property of the displaced and establish legal principles on the basis of which they are able to recover their property. But while the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government appears to have thrown in the towel even before it has started. The following statement from Gaichuhie to parliament makes clear that the government has no plans to ensure that those who lost land and property recover them or are adequately compensated:
“Some of them have title deeds. Very few of them have not been able to go back to where they were living. But I can tell you that most of the IDPs were business people in major towns. That is why the Government has decided that rather than wait to buy land and give it to somebody who had a big supermarket in town, it would give such individuals Kshs400,000 to start businesses. So, not all the IDPs had land. Some of them were businessmen. Some had land for which they did not have title deeds”
The IDP Act became operational in 2013 but the constitution of the National Consultative Co-ordination Committee (NCCC), the body tasked with implementing the Act, was only gazetted in October 2014 and the Chair of the committee appointed in November 2014. Patrick Githinji, who had been appointed to the committee as one of the two IDP representatives foreseen in Section 12 (3)(i) of the Act, and with whom I spoke at length on the 3rd of August 2022, explains that the committee commenced its work in April 2015, and its first task was to vet the internally displaced still living in 65 camps across the country with a view to compensating them and shutting down the camps. This task was accomplished by mid-2016 and—with the exception of Muhu Camp in Nyandarua County and Donga Farm in Subukia in Nakuru County, because the land bought by the government for the resettlement of these IDPs is in dispute—all the camps were closed and 11,000 households were paid 200,000 shillings each, the government having argued that it could no longer afford the 400,000 shillings it had paid to Wanjĩra’s family and others in 2014.
While the IDP Act requires it to ensure “access to effective mechanisms that restore housing, land and property”, the government seems to have thrown in the towel even before it has started.
The next task of the committee was to ensure the compensation of the so-called Integrated IDPs (that is, those living dispersed among communities, whether with relatives or friends or in rented accommodation in urban or peri-urban areas) who numbered 193,000 households according to government records. They were offered a paltry 10,000 shillings in compensation which they turned down. Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households. Of these, 30,000 households were never paid, the government having recalled the funds from the disbursing banks. As it turns out, Wanjĩra and Waithiageni are the lucky ones.
According to an undated confidential report of the Refugee Consortium of Kenya available online, the NCCC is no longer operational. This is confirmed by Githinji who says that although the term of the first NCCC was to end in December 2017, by September of that year the NCCC secretariat had been shut down and seconded staff recalled to their respective ministries.
Together with other members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya, Githinji eventually petitioned the Senate in October 2020, alleging that there were attempts to repeal the IDP Act. In their petition, the group also claimed that land bought by the government to resettle IDPs had been illegally allocated to non-IDPs or grabbed by individuals, and that many IDPs continue to languish in makeshift tents. They also accused the government of refusing to release the funds due to Integrated IDPs because of identification errors introduced into the records by the government’s own officials, and lamented that there was no government authority at whose door they could lay these claims.
Further negotiations raised the sum to 50,000 shillings but in the end, the government reviewed the list, reducing the number of integrated IDPs to be compensated to 83,000 households.
Upon receipt of the petition, the Senate invited the group to appear before the Senate Committee on Lands, Environment and Natural Resources chaired by Sen. Mwangi Githiomi in November 2020, where, following a two-hour meeting, they were advised to table a fresh petition using the Senate’s guidelines. This they did and it was agreed that the group would again meet with the Senate Committee after the Christmas recess, in February 2021. They have no news since.
By the time the IDP Act was enacted in December 2012, another 112,000 people had joined the ranks of the internally displaced, followed by a further 55,000 in 2013, over 220,000 in 2014 and over 216,000 by mid-2015 (even as the NCCC was finally sitting down to its task), most of them victims of inter-communal violence. Meanwhile, as recently as October 2021, members of the National IDPs Network-Kenya were appealing to President Uhuru Kenyatta to finalise the resettlement and compensation process for those IDPs that were forced to flee their homes in 2007/2008 before the end of his term. Both President Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto had made numerous promises on the campaign trail in the run-up to the March 2013 general election—while facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague—that all the displaced would be resettled within the first 100 days of their administration if they were elected.
In the face of government inaction, some of the Integrated IDPs who were denied compensation in 2017 have converged on Kianjogu, in Laikipia County, occupying land that was purchased by the government for IDP resettlement but never subdivided. They arrived in March/April of this year from Nyeri, Nairobi, Uasin Gishu and other counties across the country and are living in Kianjogu much as they did when they were first forced to flee their homes, massed together in unsanitary conditions and refusing to yield to threats from the government.
It would appear that the IDP Act was cynically enacted for the sole purpose of creating a vehicle—the NCCC—to facilitate the closure of the tens of camps strewn across the country and disband their residents; out of sight out of mind. If that is the case, then the government has circumvented its duty not only to address the plight of generations of IDPs, but to also provide assistance and protection to the newly displaced, and to put in place structures and measures to prevent further internal displacement. The outgoing government of Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto has instead chosen to perpetuate the generational suffering of Kenyans who were first forcibly evicted or were caused to leave their homes by the brutal and inhumane rule of the British colonial government.
Over the century since the Maasai were forcibly removed from their lands in the central Rift Valley in 1904/1905 to make way for white settlers, successive regimes have overseen the destitution of hundreds of thousands of Kenyan families. In the post-independence era, many have been forced to leave their homes by politically instigated violence where community is set against community, or by drought, famine, man-made disasters such as the Solai Dam tragedy and development-induced displacement. These hundreds of thousands of our co-citizens exist in the shadow of our lives and many lie in unmarked graves awaiting increasingly illusive justice.
The new government must, therefore, and with great urgency, operationalize the IDP Act and revive and properly reconstitute the NCCC so that it can continue with the arduous task of ensuring that durable and sustainable solutions are found for all the internally displaced. In finally beginning to properly address the plight of the internally displaced, the incoming government will not be without resources: in particular, a policy paper drawn up by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre dissects the IDP Act and makes concrete recommendations that, if applied, will equip the nation with an internal displacement response system that is fully operational.
It is unacceptable that over the almost sixty years of Kenya’s independence, successive leaders have built on the colonial legacy of dispossession and destitution of Kenyans. Whoever takes the helm after the 9 August general election must find the moral courage to put an end to the suffering of these Kenyans who, as much as anyone else in this country, have a right to expect a life lived in safety and in dignity.
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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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