Resignation Is the Right and Honourable Thing for President Obasanjo to Do13 min read.
Mediating the war on Tigray requires neutrality, impartiality, undivided attention, and freedom of action unencumbered by institutional and individual conflicts of interest. Olusegun Obasanjo has failed the test.
The glimmer of hope that came from the joint announcement by United States and European Union Special Envoys that negotiations to end the war on Tigray would begin, the siege lifted and humanitarian access fully granted, is now dimmed by the recent relapse to war. The many people who were sceptical about the start of the talks are not surprised by this resumption of the war that will consume many more young lives. Reports of killings of children in Mekelle through indiscriminate aerial bombardment and drone strikes add more setbacks to the commencement of negotiations.
A further hindrance has been the insistence that the African Union (AU) mediator, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, remain involved in the process despite the reservations of a key party to the negotiations. In order to prevent further bloodshed, the honourable thing for former president Obasanjo to do is to resign.
The AU needs to avoid political wrangling with Tigray about keeping its mediator and instead focus on fast-tracking the appointment of a new envoy who has the approval of all parties, and begin negotiations on substantive politico-military agenda items.
As the war on Tigray approaches its second year, Ethiopian, Amhara, and Eritrean forces still control some areas of the region. Legitimately expected and essential public services such as ground and air transportation, electricity, telecommunications, banking services, and fuel deliveries, remain blocked. Humanitarian assistance has been reduced to a trickle despite the readiness of the UN and other agencies to supply aid. It would seem that the aim is to exterminate Tigrayans by starving them to death.
The continued lack of progress in implementing confidence and trust-building measures (primarily, an end to aid blockages, the lifting of the siege, the resumption of all public services and the withdrawal of forces from Tigrayan territory) has resulted in a dangerous waiting game. The statements by the envoys have become meaningless.
Without the lifting of the siege, it is highly likely that fighting will resume at the slightest provocation. This waiting game could constitute a “slow death” for Tigrayans – an abominable result that should be rejected. The relapse into military confrontation is disastrous for the long-suffering people of Tigray who have already gone through unimaginable suffering, for the people of Ethiopia and for any hope of peace in the Horn of Africa. Everyone, including the AU mediator, should be working tirelessly to avoid such an outcome.
It is important to note here that empires do not collapse overnight. What is at stake is nothing but the survival of the Ethiopian state, with dreadful implications for its 110 million population and for the Horn of Africa region. The AU Commission leaders knew about the war, the atrocities and Eritrea’s full involvement, but they remained silent and later provided tacit legal cover-up. The failure of African leaders to intervene rapidly and de-link an individual mediator from the process will render AU irrelevant in the resolution of the war on Tigray.
Why should Obasanjo resign?
Mediation is only as effective as the political will and trust the parties invest in ending the conflict. The mediator is the guarantor of the parties’ trust in the process. According to the UN Guidance for Effective Mediation, the “acceptability of the mediator and the mediating entity” are critical factors in determining the success of the process. Mr Obasanjo neither inspires trust nor satisfies the other criteria of a mediator, as outlined by the UN.
The ‘non-rejectability’ test
The UN states that mediation is a voluntary process that requires the consent of the parties to the conflict to be effective. Without consent, it is unlikely that parties will negotiate in good faith or be committed to the mediation process. A mediator cannot be imposed on the parties to negotiation; he or she must get their unreserved consent before the appointment. In other words, the choice of a mediator needs to pass the “non-rejectability” test.
Mr Obasanjo fails to pass this test, as Tigray has expressly rejected his role as mediator.
Impartiality, in appearance and in fact
The UN further states that “impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation – if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, this can undermine meaningful progress to resolve the conflict”.
Impartiality, both in fact and in appearance, is an essential requirement for a mediator. The principle of omni-partiality requires that the mediator is always on both sides of the negotiation to guide the parties to points of agreement and narrow areas of divergence. Thus, an accusation against, or even a reservation regarding the mediator’s impartiality by parties to the negotiation is a sufficient condition for the mediator to step aside. Whether the partiality is real or perceived does not matter, as reservations of this kind damage confidence in the mediator and undermine trust in the mediation process.
Several factors place the impartiality of Obasanjo in serious question. He was appointed by the leadership of the AU Commission, which has been accused of taking a partisan position on the war on Tigray. Furthermore, he served as head of the AU Election Observation Mission during the August 2020 elections in Ethiopia, which were denounced and boycotted by the Tigray government and other Ethiopian forces. Despite this, Obasanjo’s team judged the election to be free and fair, thereby endorsing the rejected polls.
“Impartiality is a cornerstone of mediation – if a mediation process is perceived to be biased, this can undermine meaningful progress to resolve the conflict”.
Moreover, once appointed as mediator, Mr Obasanjo failed to ensure impartiality, both in appearance and in fact. He has conducted official and publicly televised visits with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, to areas and regarding issues that have nothing to do with the mediation. The aim of these visits has been to showcase the country’s “progress” and convey an aura of “stability” and “development” at a time when Ethiopia is facing its highest number of deaths and displacements yet due to conflict and starvation, with an economy that is in free fall.
In addition, reports indicate that Obasanjo enjoys unique access to the highest levels of the Ethiopian government – a privilege not granted to other diplomats. Obasanjo should have avoided the social and publicity events that show him to be overly close to one of the parties to the mediation. These visits have been perceived as illustrations of the “proximity of the High Representative to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia”.
Moreover, his efforts thus far have yielded no concrete outcomes. On the contrary, his pronouncements and actions have created even more confusion. In a BBC interview, Obasanjo backed a stance that makes lifting the siege and the humanitarian blockade a precondition for the start of negotiations – a position that the Ethiopian government believes is its only leverage over Tigray. Linking the provision of humanitarian aid to millions of civilians with peace negotiations is contrary to international human rights and humanitarian laws.
While the cardinal rule of a mediator is to objectively understand both the context and specificity of a conflict, Obasanjo is already armed with prescriptive templates that narrowly profile the resolutions of the conflicts in Ethiopia and, in particular, Tigray, Oromia, Gambella, Benishangul and Gumuz. Perhaps more concerning is Obasanjo’s recent brief to the AU’s Peace and Security Council. The report characterizes the armed conflicts in Ethiopia as “internal ethnic tensions in western Ethiopia; on and off tensions between Eritrea and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); recent deteriorating security situation between Ethiopia and Sudan over alleged skirmishes at the common border; reports of the arrest of suspects allegedly plotting terror attacks in Addis Ababa; and the attacks by al Shabaab in the Ferfer district of Ethiopia near the border with Somalia.”
While supporting the negotiations with Tigray, Obasanjo proposes “re-establishing strained intercommunal relations” to address armed conflicts in parts of the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions. Does this mean the armed conflicts outside Tigray could be dealt with within the current dialogue, and not through negotiations?
Obasanjo’s report dramatically underplays the war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide caused by the nationwide internal and war on Tigray, and grossly underreports their true human and economic costs. The internal wars within Ethiopia, the intervention by Eritrean armed forces, and the armed conflict with Sudan in the border areas and Al Shabaab in the Somali region have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than six million people. More than half a million lives have been lost in the war on Tigray. Obasanjo has shown no genuine interest in the atrocities committed by Eritrea, accountability, and reparations for the victims of the war. His report fails to express empathy and demonstrate solidarity with victims of the war.
Obasanjo is already armed with prescriptive templates that narrowly profile the resolutions of the conflicts in Ethiopia.
After expressing doubts about the impartiality and integrity of Obasanjo and the lack of consultation regarding his appointment by the AU in the first letter written to the UN Security Council on 23 August 2021, the Tigrayan government announced that it would “only accept impartial and neutral mediators and not those that have displayed partiality towards the Government of Ethiopia. Those who endorsed the war on Tigray publicly or tacitly supported and attempted to bestow credibility to the sham elections conducted in June 2021 will not be accepted by the Government of Tigray”.
It further accused the AU of failing “to rise to the occasion when the war broke. They abandoned their core mandate of preventing the war when the Government of Tigray repeatedly appealed for their preventive diplomacy before and in the early stages of the war. The AU was proven incapable of pronouncing itself when combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces aided by non-African forces invaded Tigray and committed atrocious crimes. The Government of Tigray is deeply disappointed by Mr Moussa Faki, AU Commission Chairperson, who even went further to endorse the genocide and war on Tigray officially. The Government of Tigray strongly believes that the AU cannot provide any solution to the war in Tigray, which it has officially endorsed”. It added that “the Government of Tigray reserves its right to reject any imposition of mediation without prior substantive consultations”.
In a recent open letter, the President of Tigray accused the AU of betraying the foundational principles of the Union. “The silence of the African Union over the war and the atrocities perpetrated by the forces ranged against us was a betrayal of the Foundational Principles of the Union. We have consistently condemned the failure of the African Union Chairperson and his High Representative to take a position consistent with their solemn obligations under the Constitutive Act of the Union, the Protocol establishing the Peace and Security Council, and a host of other commitments entered into. In the considered view of the People and Government of Tigray, the leadership of the African Union Commission has yet to redeem its failures and restore our trust.” This latest letter from the president was the final nail in the coffin of Obasanjo’s mediation role. Tigray has decided that Obasanjo is not impartial enough to mediate the war.
Possibly due to pressure from the regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmara, the Obasanjo brief recommends inviting Eritrea into the mediation effort, requesting the AU Commission “to extend a formal invitation to the Republic of Eritrea to join ongoing AU-led efforts aimed at finding lasting diplomatic solutions to the conflict between the Federal Government of Ethiopia and the TPLF”. The brief notes that “Eritrea has sided with Ethiopia in the conflict with TPLF,” significantly underreporting the role that Eritrea played and is still playing as an omnipotent foreign force in the war on Tigray. It then states that “realities continue to prove that brokering genuine peace between Addis Ababa and Mekelle requires the involvement of Asmara.”
The proposal reveals the inconsistencies of the AU’s position on the war on Tigray. Despite the presence of incontrovertible evidence since the beginning of the war, the AU has long maintained a policy of silence and turned a blind eye to the major role of the Eritrean armed forces in the war on Tigray and the ensuing atrocities. This policy of ignoring Eritrea’s destructive role in Ethiopia’s current conflicts is to be contrasted with the EU and US positions, which publicly confirmed the participation of Eritrean armed forces in the war on Tigray and called for their immediate withdrawal and for perpetrators to be held accountable. The US government went further to issue an executive order that sanctioned the Eritrean regime for the atrocities in Tigray.
Without mentioning Eritrea’s role in the war on Tigray, the reasons forwarded to justify its involvement in the mediation speak volumes about the AU’s inability to master the intricacies of Ethiopian, Tigrayan, and Eritrean relations, or to decipher where Obasanjo’s actual bias lies. What is more, if the AU were to endorse such a recommendation, it would fly in the face of everything the AU stands for.
The AU was proven incapable of pronouncing itself when combined Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara forces aided by non-African forces invaded Tigray and committed atrocious crimes.
Furthermore, with the proposal to invite Eritrea into the negotiations, the AU mediation is entering a legal minefield. As with previous statements by the AU Commission, the Obasanjo report mentions nothing about the circumstances and legality of the Eritrean armed forces’ entry into the war, nor of the crucial role they played. While the Ethiopian government had not made an official statement inviting Eritrea’s intervention, Eritrea, along with the Amhara and Ethiopian forces, played a crucial part in the execution of the war on Tigray.
For many months, and despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary, the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed denied the participation of Eritrean soldiers in the conflict. Eritrea also vehemently denied its involvement. This suddenly changed on 23 March 2021, when the Prime Minister cautiously admitted before parliament that Eritrean forces had been in Tigray since the beginning of the conflict. Eritrea then followed suit. Both parties, by and large, hinted that Eritrea had sent its forces to Tigray in self-defence, without providing further details. These admissions did not clarify whether Ethiopia had invited the Eritrean forces into Tigray. What is clear, nonetheless, is that Ethiopia has never openly criticized the Eritrean intervention or the atrocities Eritrean forces have been accused of committing in Tigray, much less demanded that these forces leave Tigray. In addition, Eritrea still occupies certain areas of Tigray and is heavily deployed alongside the federal and Amhara forces in west Tigray.
In light of these developments, it is apparent that the Eritrean forces are working closely with the federal government forces. This has also been established by independent investigations, including by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which showed that Ethiopian and Eritrean forces regularly conduct joint operations. Thus, the war on Tigray is not an international armed conflict where internationally recognized states use force against each other.
Eritrea’s involvement, as such, does not change the situation into that of international armed conflict, as it is helping the Ethiopian government and its allies.
Since Tigray is not an independent country, it has no business negotiating with any entity except the federal government of Ethiopia. The negotiation is an internal Ethiopian issue. Although this fact is easily overlooked, the negotiations will determine Tigray’s relations with Ethiopia, not (or only indirectly) with Eritrea. There is no legal basis to involve Eritrea in the mediation effort without the consent of the negotiating parties.
In addition to the legal, practical, and ethical considerations, on what political basis should Eritrea take part in mediations to resolve the causes of an internal war in Ethiopia?
The Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Amhara governments grew very close during the months before the war on Tigray. They have a shared antagonism towards Tigray and its government. The Ethiopian regime allowed Eritrean forces to kill, displace, destroy, and commit atrocities in Tigray. Eritrea has few allies – the Ethiopian and Amhara governments are the only two in the region – and it will sacrifice its own people to avoid losing these two newly made friends. The regime in Asmara thrives only in a region that is besieged with instability, not a peaceful one, let alone a successful one. The very mediation effort between Tigray and Ethiopia threatens the Eritrean regime. A successful peaceful resolution of the war between Tigray and Ethiopia has the potential to unravel the entirety of Eritrea’s regional influence after the end of the triumvirate Abiy–Isaias–Farmaajo security pact. Thus, Eritrea is the most significant threat to the mediation process.
The negotiations will, among others, look at Ethiopia’s relations with neighbouring countries bordering Tigray, including Eritrea and Sudan. The post-war future of Ethiopia will determine how Eritrea will interact with Tigray. That’s why Obasanjo’s suggestion to invite Eritrea to the negotiation table never boded well for Tigray. While Ethiopia may welcome this, for Tigray it is likely to be a non-starter. There is no reason why Eritrea should have the unique privilege of being invited to a negotiation process that will define Tigray’s relations with Ethiopia.
With the proposal to invite Eritrea into the negotiations, the AU mediation is entering a legal minefield.
The same Obasanjo brief mentions that “unresolved disputes between Ethiopia and Sudan over the Al-Fashaqa area remain a source of tension . . . with Ethiopia accusing its neighbour of harbouring elements of the TPLF in its territories”. Thus, in applying the same logic, one is forced to ask why Obasanjo did not propose to invite Sudan – which, according to the report, supports Tigray – to the mediation table. Why extend an invitation to Eritrea but not Sudan? With Eritrea, Sudan, and more countries at the table, the mediation will only become more complex and unlikely to bear any peace.
In mediation parlance, impartiality is often ensured by objectively answering the big question: has the mediator passed the non-rejectability test, which requires that parties to the conflict must unreservedly consent to the mediator’s role? Is the mediator impartial? In principle and practice, a mediator’s credibility is beyond redemption once he/she is perceived as partisan by any of the parties to the conflict. This principle is not only informed by but also consistent with African mediation experience. Obasanjo himself has become an issue in this process, and he needs to recuse himself for the sake of peace in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. When the mediator’s impartiality comes into question, or even when a mediation effort lacks progress, or any of the conflicting parties refuse to cooperate, the long-standing practice is for the mediator to resign. The experiences of Said Dijinnit in the Burundi mediation, and Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi in the Syria process are instructive. Never before has a mediator insisted on staying put when one of the parties has opposed their participation. What explains Obasanjo’s unprecedented inclination to remain as a mediator contrary to established principles and practices?
What is to be done?
As a mediator, Obasanjo’s impartiality has been questioned by one of the parties, and it is only natural that he should step aside. His resignation would help avoid unnecessary political wrangling, prevent forum shopping, fast-track the selection of new mediators, and commence the negotiation on substantive agenda items.
The AU has no legal or political basis for ignoring Tigray’s position and has no right – legal or political – for opposing the selection of a mutually agreeable mediator. The AU must prevent the current rhetoric from becoming a political handicap, rendering the body irrelevant to the resolution of the war on Tigray.
A new mediator needs to be appointed quickly with the consultation and consent of all parties.
Mediating such a war requires neutrality, impartiality, undivided attention, and freedom of action unencumbered by institutional and individual conflicts of interest. Thus, the full-time availability of the mediators is a prerequisite for the successful engagement of the parties. An additional prerequisite for a successful mediation is a deep understanding of the context of the war on Tigray, the crises in Ethiopia, and the situation in the Horn of Africa, a quality some of the potential mediators possess.
Negotiations also require enforcement mechanisms and punitive measures against spoilers and violators of agreements. These necessitate strong government backing by states with influence with both parties as guarantors of such a process.
So far, none of the parties has rejected Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s offer to lead the mediation. As an outgoing president he remains a viable option if the incoming government of Kenya, the AU, IGAD, and the UN were to support him. Given that he has been officially engaging the parties with the support of international actors, continuing what he has started would allow the smooth and speedy resumption of mediation.
A successful peaceful resolution of the war between Tigray and Ethiopia has the potential to unravel the entirety of Eritrea’s regional influence.
Given that state backing is crucial to any mediator’s success, political, diplomatic, and financial support for the office of the mediator, as well as the AU, IGAD, UN, EU, US and China is necessary. If for any reason President Uhuru is unable to take up the role, there are several other potential mediators that could be acceptable to and possess leverage with both parties and the international community. As is often the case, the US and EU may not explicitly show their preference on this and other matters related to the mediation to avoid being accused of undermining AU and African mediation efforts.
At the same time, to avoid competing and fragmented mediations, it is crucial to ensure that there is only a single mediation process. A consultative approach helps to avoid parallel initiatives and build confidence.
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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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