From Paranoia to Process: The Future of African Migration10 min read.
Human history is a record of mass migrations and evolutionary importance of migration remains undiminished. On today’s crowded planet demanding creative solutions, coevolutionary processes across system scales from local to global are the contemporary equivalent of bipedalism.
Our hominin ancestors descended from the canopy and hit the ground running. Bipedalism equipped the species with evolutionary advantages including the use of tools, enhanced cognitive skills, and the capacity for long distance travel. Human history became a record of mass migrations as our species travelled across desert, mountains, and through forests, peopling the continents and occupying the planet’s most remote islands and archipelagos. Then, around six thousand years ago, they started settling down.
The rest was inevitable. What began as the wandering of bands and clans eventually gave way to the mastery over nature and conquests that shaped and reconfigured the modern world. The disruptions of the Second World War and the decolonization that followed completed the world’s present ethno-nationalist map. The post-World II era was a period of state consolidation. Together with decolonization, it conveyed the impression of a sorted-out world map where almost everyone belonged to a territorially-defined place.
This status quo shifted in 1989. Freedom of movement resumed and thirty-four new states came into existence. Although the transnational flows of goods, services, and capital did not extend to labour, events following the neoliberal opening triggered a new wave of population movement. International migration increased by 41 per cent between the turn of the millennium and 2015. Migrants now comprise 3.6 per cent of the global population of 7.96 billion, and they remit some US$720 billion to their home countries.
Africans contributed only a small portion of the increase responsible for the surge, despite perceptions that locate them in the front of the wave. It’s not that they don’t want to move. A recent study reported that 52 per cent of the young Africans questioned are planning to move abroad in the next three years—marking a strong contrast with a survey several years ago that found more than two-thirds of the continent’s young people want to stay put. Their options, however, are limited.
This is in part due to the high numbers of immigrants from other regions who preceded them. Where European migration provided by far the largest number since 1492, Asia provided the largest segment of people who have resettled abroad since 1989. Most migration routes now run from south to north and from east to west. What began as resettlement and labour contracts ended up contributing to the we-are-here-because-you-were-there meme.
The backlash against immigration that is raising barriers to travel and resettlement is not only a Western country problem. The sentiments behind Brexit and Trump’s MAGA xenophobia are to be found in the intolerance for non-indigenous residents in many African countries. South Africa may be the most blatant example, but migrants in neighbouring countries remain vulnerable to political vagaries, as the large number of Kenyans who set up base in newly independent South Sudan discovered. An estimated 1 to 2 million Chinese, many of them contract labourers and small businessmen, have migrated to the continent at the same time as Africans are face growing impediments to setting up shop in neighbouring countries. Chinese sources report a much lower number, but they only include workers on formal contracts.
Migrants have always been pawns in domestic politics and the games nations play. The artificial refugee crisis created by the Government of Belarus in 2021 is one example. President Alexander Lukashenko boasted that he would flood the European Union with drug smugglers, human traffickers, and armed migrants. Flights to the Middle East were increased to accommodate the tens of thousands of mainly Kurdish refugees who received new visas. The government said they were promoting their tourism sector. Arrivals reported they were provided with wire cutters and directions to unprotected border points.
The coronavirus pandemic added biomedical criteria to the list of conditions travellers must satisfy. Such trends contrast with economists’ reckoning that the free movement of people is one of our most effective tools for poverty reduction, and that it could potentially increase global GDP by over 30 per cent.
Despite the many success stories of displaced communities who have made good, perceptions of migration are now intertwined with climate change, socioeconomic precarity, and the other political forces reconfiguring today’s world. The administrative and political constraints hindering international travel immigration have long term implications for Africa’s developmental trajectory at a time when the continent’s population is surging.
Or does it?
External perspectives on African migration
There are many variations on the large-scale movement from one environment to another: involuntary, circular, seasonal, episodic, transnational, sponsored, and spontaneous to name a few. The scope of migration studies and policy analysis is by the same measure extensive and multi-faceted. This literature conveys a rather complicated picture of the dynamics in play and the empirical outcomes they continue to generate.
The common approach sees migration as a series of discreet events, reinforced by the role of diverse influences like political conflicts, environmental calamities, and economic drivers. It is further obfuscated by the influence of ethnic diasporas, reactionary populist enclaves, and human trafficking networks. Nomenclature distinguishing migrant from immigrant, immigrant from citizen, and guest workers from expatriates adds an element of incongruency.
The world appears to be awash with ever increasing numbers of migrants as the news cycle saturates us with images from crisis spots like Syria, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine. But the popular perception that most migration is driven by domestic crises does not synch with the large body of research, data, and scholarship. Rather, the evidence shows the migration is beneficial for both the new hosts and sending nations. Refugees comprise only a minor portion of the people on the move according to global data statistics.
The data also indicates that most international migration follows conventional pathways and formal procedures. The great majority of Africans leaving the continent do so in possession of valid passports and visas. The typical immigrant leaves in search of education, employment, and to reunite with family members. One study of African trends and patterns since 1960 calculated that only 20 per cent of African migrants between 1960 and 2010 were attributable to conflict and poverty. The analysis goes a long way towards debunking the stereotypical view that African is a continent on the move, and that most of the traffic is directed toward Europe.
The popular perception that most migration is driven by domestic crises does not synch with the large body of research, data, and scholarship.
But this is not 2010. The world has shifted. The intensity of African migration (the percentage of emigration relative to the domestic population) has decreased, but this is accompanied by recent claims that environmental disasters, political instability, and the uneven impacts of globalisation now account for the majority of African movements. A UN University study on the root causes and regulatory dynamics of African migration begins with the highly dubious claim that migrants now comprise 12.5 per cent of the world’s population. It proceeds to observe that:
There are an estimated 1 billion migrants in the world today and demographic imbalances, economic inequality, increased globalization, political instability and climatic changes will all contribute to increasing large-scale migration in the coming decades, disproportionally affecting the Global South.
Determining the facts is not easy. After Syria, Africa as a region does host the world’s largest share of displaced persons. But the study cited here does little to clarify what the disproportionate effects referred to actually are. Even if the role of episodic events is greater at this juncture, the overall rate of African migration has declined to 2.9 per cent, and 79 per cent of that statistic is limited to the emigrants’ home region.
The same localized pattern holds for the impacts of climate change. Images generated by crisis-driven migration have nevertheless come to personify the influence of the environmental changes erupting across the planet. Levels of uncertainty are increasing apace. The sheer numbers of asylum seekers quarantined on the Greek island of Lesbos, and the sordid conditions of the refugees packed into the “Calais Jungle” camp in northern France reinforce public support for tightening borders. At the same time, unmet demand in labour markets is reflected in the growth of human trafficking, which tripled between 2008 and 2019.
Institutionalization of state surveillance in China and the zero-tolerance enforcement towards asylum seekers in Australia and eastern European countries may be symptoms of the fading neo-liberal vision. These and other policies are also influenced by the perceived threat of mass migration: allowing a small trickle today will turn into a flood tomorrow. Once again, empirical data contradicts popular perceptions. The UNHCR reports that two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar.
Local and regional issues are responsible for the great majority of involuntary movements. The internally displaced now make up the great majority of the world’s refugees. The strict transnational protocols being enacted nevertheless point to the hidden transcript influencing white-wing populist narratives. Commentators like Tucker Carlson, for example, exploit ethno-nationalist nostalgia combined with the longstanding fear of barbarians at the gate to promote his replacement theory polemic in the United States.
The internally displaced now make up the great majority of the world’s refugees.
They need not worry. Migration is a function of capacity. For the highly skilled, migration is easy, and they emigrate over long distances. Although the poor also migrate, they do so less often and cover much shorter distances.
Redefining African migration
Studies of migration typically focus on push and pull factors, socioeconomic variables, directionality and destinations, and feedback effects like the brain-drain and other impacts. For present purposes, its best to redefine immigration as process, punctuated by stress and friction, facilitating the flow of ideas, and leading to outcomes including integration, assimilation, and coevolutionary syntheses.
African exemplars of this process encompass distinct Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan African variations. Examples of mass migration include the Arabisation of North Africa, the Nuer’s rapid expansion at the expense of the Dinka between 1795 and 1845, and the Ogaden Somali migrations into northeastern Kenya after crossing the Juba river. But for the most part, African history is a record of small groups inscribing multi-directional migrations out of several linguistic “cradlelands” or dispersal areas.
Africa’s historically low population densities, climatic and environmental uncertainty, and irregular distribution of natural resources favoured the free movement of people. Spatial variables and the variegated landscape played a primary role in the patterns of migration and settlement. The role of iron and the domestication of plant and animal species featured prominently in the slow but steady distribution of the population across the continent. In most cases expansion took the form of clans, extended families, and individuals covering relatively short distances.
This growth reached a threshold around 1250 CE, when the end of the high humidity climate of the first millennia set a number of populations on the move. This led to the modern configuration of the larger eastern and Horn of Africa region. The outcome of these movements, as the archaeological record dating back to proto-historic times shows, was a quilt-work of sedentary, transhumant, and nomadic communities. They practiced a spectrum of livelihood strategies adapted to the mosaic of irregular ecological niches.
Over time a number of cultural solidarities emerged. Examples are the agricultural Akan-Ashanti, Mande, and pastoral Fulani and Tuareg in West Africa, the pre-Arab Amazigh of northern Africa, and the Swahili of the Afro-Indian Ocean littoral.
African state formation occurred in a diversity of settings, while freedom to move on moderated the hegemonic proclivities of kingdoms and lineage societies. In West Africa, population compaction in the forest zone and long-distance commerce in the Sahel explain the earlier emergence and greater permanence of centralized states. The kingdoms of the Great Lakes came about through the confluence of Cushitic, Nilotic, and Bantu elements. Like Abyssinia, they trace their origins to the process of secondary state formation originating in ancient Egypt.
In many of these states the proclivity for centralization was countered by people’s ability to vote with their feet. Ruling clans carried their royal power objects and traditions with them in the case of the Lwoo speakers. Since the proto historical era the process resulted in resilient ethno-cultural mosaics bound together by webs of exchange, practicing different forms of decentralized governance, and demarcated by the interactive neutral zones that served as borders. These mosaics provided the underpinning for Africa’s distinctly coevolutionary developmental trajectory.
Many of these areas supported a coevolutionary dynamic that by the late precolonial era was feeding into the rise of proto-state organization, including the multi-ethnic followings attracted to charismatic leaders and prophets, and councils integrating generational age-set systems. Kinship fictive and real operated alongside other cultural institutions accommodating the migration and assimilation of clans and individuals.
The rise of multi-ethnic polities and networks continued up to the moment of European intervention. Imperial conquest short-circuited the process. The formation of Africa’s colonial states ring-fenced communities, demarcating hard borders separating nations and communities. Migration continued, but the process was now managed from above.
Contrary to the expectations cultivated by the Pan-African movement, decolonization actually resulted in a decline of migration. Governments used immigration controls to demonstrate their sovereignty over the populations within their borders. Both Ghana and Nigeria ordered large-scale deportations of African immigrants within their borders two decades into the independence era. Many countries imposed strict requirements for African nationals’ visas.
As noted above, most of the movement and scope for policy-based solutions is now taking place on the regional scale. Africa’s regional economic communities like the Economic Community of West African States, the East African Community, and the Southern African Development Community have endorsed policies supporting the free movement of people, but governments continue to display ambivalence when it comes to implementation. Intra-African movements continue to decline, especially for land-locked countries, although migration abroad remains strong in a sample of countries that include Angola, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.
Contrary to the expectations cultivated by the Pan-African movement, decolonization actually resulted in a decline of migration.
Africa’s mosaic template remains active, but at this moment it is for the most part sustained by internal displacement and the waves of refugees seeking sanctuary across borders. Both conflict and migration have always been intrinsic to socioeconomic transitions. This dynamic assumes greater cogency in current circumstances, where intra-African migration continues to decline and African states remain reluctant to relax border controls. These conditions in turn highlight the role of informal processes on the margins.
The region’s rangelands are the one area where the free movement of goods and peoples still follow the dynamics displaced by the imposition of artificial boundaries. A new IGAD-UNDP project supporting cross-border free-trade zones represents a first step towards recognizing how developments in these areas are contributing to regional integration. Benefits generated by the new socioeconomic mosaics emerging in the borderlands include improved cooperation among government administrators on issues of conflict, livestock rustling, and human trafficking.
No population is permanent
The evolutionary importance of migration remains undiminished. On a crowded planet demanding creative solutions, coevolutionary processes across system scales from local to global are the contemporary equivalent of bipedalism.
In an influential 1971 paper entitled Hypothesis of the Mobility Transition, Wilbur Zelinsky argued that processes of economic development and modernisation coincided with increasing rural-to-urban migration followed by a subsequent increase in emigration. Subsequent developments supported his predictions: as societies become wealthy emigration decreases and immigration increases.
Rising emigration is normally an indicator of a nation’s economic growth, education, and access to information and transnational networks. By this measure, Kenya’s mobility transition is well underway. The diaspora is an active contributor the national economy, and the country’s percentage of immigrants has gradually risen from 2.14 to 2.35 since 2005. These other indicators suggest it is one of a cluster of African nations poised to become net destination countries over the coming years.
Kalundi Serumaga’s companion piece to this essay clarifies the local context of the pathways discussed here. As he reminds us, modern world history is mainly a record of Western European migration. Their peregrinations gave us the present world system. If migration is a function of capacity and institutional checkpoints, this still favours citizens from the Global North—prompting Serumaga to conclude by predicting that the next large-scale migration into Africa will be Caucasian.
On a crowded planet demanding creative solutions, coevolutionary processes across system scales from local to global are the contemporary equivalent of bipedalism.
This makes karmic sense. From the onset of the Christian era until 1900 Africa’s percentage of the globe’s population decreased from 15 per cent to 9 per cent. Africa should have been a magnet for in-migration considering Africa demographic conditions and economic resources, but the continent got the slave trade instead. The flow of world history is due to reverse.
Africa’s share of the population is expected to hit 20 per cent in 2030. In two decades Africa will host the lion’s share of the world’s labour force. Unless artificial intelligence achieves a radical shift in how things work, global economic integration will follow suite. Africa will become a destination continent. The directionality of world migration is already shifting, but I disagree with Kalundi on its composition. As the continent’s future emerges, our new neighbours are more likely to be Chinese and Indian than European—alongside the sundry Sudanese, Nigerians, Egyptians, and Congolese.
But who knows? Zelinsky also prophesied that the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies will impact human geographic mobility. Maybe we will end up living in a demobilized world where everyone will be cohabiting in the metaverse.
This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.
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The Dictatorship of the Church
From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.
In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.
Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.
Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.
Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.
The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.
Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health services. Critics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”
Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.
A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.
Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.
In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique
Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.
Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.
The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.
A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.
More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.
In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
The US has become addicted to private military contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability” in the so-called war on terror.
Though it claimed the lives of three Americans, not 2,403, some liken the January 2020 al-Shabaab attack at Manda Bay, Kenya, to Pearl Harbour. The US would go on to unleash massive airstrikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia.
“We Americans hate being caught out,” a spy-plane pilot and contractor recently told me. “We should have killed them before they even planned it.”
Both the Manda Bay and Pearl Harbour attacks revealed the vulnerability of US personnel and forces. One brought the US into the Second World War. The other has brought Kenya into the global–and seemingly endless–War on Terror.
Months before launching the assault, members of the Al Qaeda-linked faction bivouacked in mangrove swamp and scrubland along this stretch of the northeast Kenyan coast. Unseen, they observed the base and Magagoni airfield. The airfield was poorly secured to begin with. They managed not to trip the sensors and made their way past the guard towers and the “kill zone” without being noticed.
At 5.20 a.m. on 5 January, pilots and contractors for L3Harris Technologies, which conducts airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) for the Pentagon, were about to take off from the airfield in a Beechcraft King Air b350. The twin engine plane was laden with sensors, cameras, and other high tech video equipment. Seeing thermal images of what they thought were hyenas scurrying across the runway, the pilots eased back on the engines. By the time they realized that a force of committed, disciplined and well-armed al-Shabaab fighters had breached Magagoni’s perimeter, past the guard towers, it was too late.
Simultaneously, a mile away, other al-Shabaab fighters attacked Camp Simba, an annex to Manda Bay where US forces and contractors are housed. Al-Shabaab fired into the camp to distract personnel and delay the US response to the targeted attack at the airfield.
Back at the Magagoni airfield, al-Shabaab fighters launched a rocket-propelled grenade at the King Air. “They took it right in the schnauzer,” an aircraft mechanic at Camp Simba who survived the attack recently recalled to me. Hit in the nose, the plane burst into flames. Pilots Bruce Triplett, 64, and Dustin Harrison, 47, both contractors employed by L3Harris, died instantly. The L3Harris contractor working the surveillance and reconnaissance equipment aft managed to crawl out, badly burned. US Army Specialist Henry J Mayfield, 23, who was in a truck clearing the tarmac, was also killed.
The attack on Camp Simba was not the first al-Shabaab action carried out in Kenya. But it was the first in the country to target US personnel. And it was wildly successful.
AFRICOM initially reported that six contractor-operated civilian aircraft had been damaged. However, drone footage released by al-Shabaab’s media wing showed that within a few minutes, the fighters had destroyed six surveillance aircraft, medical evacuation helicopters on the ground, several vehicles, and a fuel storage area. US and Kenyan forces engaged al-Shabaab for “several hours”.
Included in the destroyed aircraft was a secretive US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) military de Havilland Dash-8 twin-engine turboprop configured for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. A report released by United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in March 2022 acknowledges that the attackers “achieved a degree of success in their plan.”
Teams working for another air-surveillance company survived the attack because their aircraft were in the air, preparing to land at Magagoni. Seeing what was happening on the ground, the crew diverted to Mombasa and subsequently to Entebbe, Uganda, where they stayed for months while Manda Bay underwent measures for force protection.
I had the chance to meet some of the contractors from that ISR flight. Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu, the coastal town where I live. On one recent afternoon, they commandeered a bar’s sound system, replacing Kenyan easy listening with boisterous Southern rock from the States.
Sweet home Alabama!
An ISR operator and I struck up an acquaintance. Black-eyed, thickly built, he’s also a self-confessed borderline sociopath. My own guess would be more an on-the-spectrum disorder. Formerly an operator with Delta Force, he was a “door kicker” and would often—in counter-terror parlance—“fix and finish” terror suspects. Abundant ink on his solid arms immortalizes scenes of battle from Iraq and Afghanistan. In his fifties, with a puffy white beard, he’s now an ISR contractor, an “eye in the sky”. His workday is spent “finding and fixing” targets for the Pentagon.
Occasionally, these guys—some call themselves paramilitary contractors—escape Camp Simba to hang out at various watering holes in and around Lamu.
He tells me about his missions—ten hours in a King Air, most of that time above Somalia, draped over cameras and video equipment. He gathers sensitive data for “pattern of life” analysis. He tells me that on the morning of the attack he was in the King Air about to land at the Magagoni airstrip.
We talked about a lot of things but when I probed him about “pattern of life” intel, the ISR operator told me not a lot except that al-Shabaab had been observing Camp Simba and the airstrip for a pattern of life study.
What I could learn online is that a pattern of life study is the documentation of the habits of an individual subject or of the population of an area. Generally done without the consent of the subject, it is carried out for purposes including security, profit, scientific research, regular censuses, and traffic analysis. So, pattern-of-life analysis is a fancy term for spying on people en masse. Seemingly boring.
Less so as applied to the forever war on terror. The operator pointed out the irony of how the mile or so of scrubland between the base and the Indian Ocean coastline had been crawling with militant spies in the months preceding the attack at Camp Simba. Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
ISR and Pattern of Life are inextricably linked
King Airs perform specialized missions; the planes are equipped with cameras and communications equipment suitable for military surveillance. Radar systems gaze through foliage, rain, darkness, dust storms or atmospheric haze to provide real time, high quality tactical ground imagery anytime it is needed, day or night. What my operator acquaintance collects goes to the Pentagon where it is analysed to determine whether anything observed is “actionable”. In many instances, action that proceeds includes airstrikes. But as a private military contractor ISR operator cannot “pull the trigger”.
In the six weeks following the attack at Magagoni and Camp Simba, AFRICOM launched 13 airstrikes against al-Shabaab’s network. That was a high share of the total of 42 carried out in 2020.
Airstrikes spiked under the Trump administration, totalling more than 275 reported, compared with 60 over the eight years of the Barack Obama administration. It is no great mystery that the Manda Bay-Magagoni attack occurred during Trump’s time in office.
Typically, the ISR specialist says, his job is to find an al-Shabaab suspect and study his daily behaviours—his “pattern of life.”
Several al-Shabaab leaders behind the attack are believed to have been killed in such airstrikes. The US first launched airstrikes against al-Shabab in Somalia in 2007 and increased them in 2016, according to data collected and analysed by UK-based non-profit Airwars.
Controversy arises from the fact that, as precise as these strikes are thought to be, there are always civilian casualties.
“The US uses pattern of life, in part, to identify ways to reduce the risk of innocent civilian casualties (CIVCAS) (when/where are targets by themselves or with family) whereas obviously Shabaab does not distinguish as such and uses it for different purposes,” a Department of Defense official familiar with the matter of drone operations told me.
The Biden administration resumed airstrikes in Somalia in August 2021. AFRICOM claimed it killed 13 al-Shabaab militants and that no civilians were killed.
According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Mustaf ‘Ato is a senior Amniyat official responsible for coordinating and conducting al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and Kenya and has helped plan attacks on Kenyan targets and US military compounds in Kenya. It is not clear, however, if this target has been fixed and killed.
A few days after the second anniversary of the Manda Bay attack, the US offered a US$10 million bounty.
The American public know very little about private military contractors. Yet the US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”. “Americans don’t care about contractors coming home in body bags,” says Sean McFate, a defense and national security analyst.
These airstrikes, targeted with the help of the operators and pilots in the King Airs flying out of Magagoni, would furnish a strong motive for al-Shabaab’s move on 5 January 2020.
The Pentagon carried out 15 air strikes in 2022 on the al-Qaeda-linked group, according to the Long War Journal tracker. Africom said the strikes killed at least 107 al-Shabaab fighters. There are no armed drones as such based at Camp Simba but armed gray-coloured single-engine Pilatus aircraft called Draco (Latin for “Dragon”) are sometimes used to kill targets in Somalia, a well-placed source told me.
The US has become addicted to contractors mainly because they provide “plausible deniability”.
The contractor I got to know somewhat brushes off the why of the attack. It is all too contextual for public consumption, and probably part of army indoctrination not to encourage meaningful discussion. He had, however, made the dry observation about the al-Shabaab affiliates out in the bush near the airfield, doing “pattern of life” reconnaissance.
The strike on Magagoni was closely timed and fully coordinated. And it appears that the primary aim was to take out ISR planes and their crews. It was private contractors, not US soldiers, in those planes. I pointed out to the operator that those targets would serve al-Shabaab’s aims both of vengeance and deterrence or prevention. His response: “Who cares why they attacked us? Al-Shabaab are booger-eaters.”
With that he cranks up the sound, singing along off-key:
And this bird, you cannot change
Lord help me, I can’t change….
Won’t you fly high, free bird, yeah.
Breaking the Chains of Indifference
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.
They say that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
As someone from the diaspora, every time I visited Sudan, I noticed that many of the houses had small problems like broken door knobs, cracked mirrors or crooked toilet seats that never seemed to get fixed over the years. Around Khartoum, you saw bumps and manholes on sand-covered, uneven roads. You saw buildings standing for years like unfinished skeletons. They had tons of building material in front of them: homeless families asleep in their shade, lying there, motionless, like collateral damage. This has always been the norm. Still, it is a microcosm of a much broader reality. Inadequate healthcare, a crumbling educational system, and a lack of essential services also became the norm for the Sudanese people.
This would be different, of course, if the ruling party owned the facility you were in, with the paved roads leading up to their meticulously maintained mansions. This stark contrast fuelled resentment among the people, leading them to label the government and its associates as “them.” These houses were symbols of the vast divide between the ruling elite and the everyday citizens longing for change. As the stark divide between “them” and “us” deepened, people yearned to change everything at once, to rid themselves of the oppressive grip of “them.”
Over the years, I understood why a pervasive sense of indifference had taken hold. The people of Sudan grew indifferent towards a government that remained unchanged. It showed no willingness to address the needs of its citizens unless it directly benefited those in power. For three decades, drastic change eluded the Sudanese people. They woke up each day to a different price for the dollar and a different cost for survival. The weight of this enduring status quo bore down upon them, rendering them mere spectators of their own lives. However, as it always does, a moment of reckoning finally arrived—the revolution.
Returning home after the 2019 revolution in Sudan, what stood out in contrast to the indifference was the hashtag #hanabnihu, which from Arabic translates to “we will build it.” #Hanabnihu echoed throughout Sudanese conversations taking place on and off the internet, symbolizing our determination to build our nation. To build our nation, we needed to commit to change beyond any single group’s fall, or any particular faction’s victory. Our spirits were high as everyone felt we had enough muscle memory to remember what happened in the region. We remembered how many of “them” came back to power. With the military still in power, the revolution was incomplete. Yet it still served as a rallying cry for the Sudanese people. It was a collective expression of their determination to no longer accept the unfinished state of their nation.
Many Sudanese people from the diaspora returned to Sudan. They helped the people of Suean create spaces of hope and resilience, everyone working tirelessly to build a new Sudan. They initiated remarkable projects and breathed life into the half-built houses they now prioritized to turn into homes. We had yearned for a time when broken door knobs and crooked toilet seats would be fixed, and for a time when the government would smooth out the bumps on the road. For four years following the revolution, people marched, protested, and fought for a Sudan they envisioned. They fought in opposition to the military, whose two factions thought that a massacre or even a coup might bring the people back to the state of indifference that they once lived in.
Remarkably, the protests became ingrained in the weekly schedule of the Sudanese people. It became part of their routine, a testament to their unwavering dedication and the persistence of their aspirations. But soon, the people found themselves normalized to these protests. This was partly due to the fact that it was organized by the only body fighting against the return of this indifference: the neighborhood’s resistance committees. These horizontally structured, self-organized member groups regularly convened to organize everything from planning the weekly protests and discussing economic policy to trash pickup, and the way corruption lowered the quality of the bread from the local bakery.
The international media celebrated the resistance committees for their innovation in resistance and commitment to nonviolence. But as we, the Sudanese, watched the news on our resistance fade, it was clear that the normalization of indifference extended beyond Sudan’s borders. The international community turned a blind eye to justice, equality, and progress in the celebrated principles of the peaceful 2019 revolution. In a desperate attempt to establish fake stability in Sudan, the international community continued their conversations with the military. Their international sponsors mentioned no retribution against the military for their actions.
During my recent visit to Sudan, the sense of anticipation was palpable. It was just two months before the outbreak of war between the army and the paramilitary group. The protests had intensified and the economy was faltering. The nation stood at the precipice as the activism continued and the tensions between “us” and “them” had begun to grow once again.
Now, as war engulfs the nation, many Sudanese find themselves torn. At the same time, they hope for the victory of the Sudanese Army. Despite the army’s flaws, Sudanese people hope the army will win against “them” while recognizing that this war remains primarily between different factions of “them.” We wake up every day with a little less hope. We watch them bomb Khartoum and the little infrastructure that existed turn to dust. We watch as the resistance committees continue to do the army’s job for them. They work fiercely to deliver medicine, evacuate people and collect the nameless bodies on the sides of the streets next to the burnt buildings that were almost starting to be completed.
Another battle takes place online. On Sudanese social media, people challenge the negative mood of the war. Sudanese architects and designers work from their rented flats in Cairo or Addis, posting juxtaposed images that place the grainy, rashly captured photos of the latest burnt-down building in Khartoum next to different rendered perspectives. These perspectives reimagine the same building in a rebuilt Sudan. They thus instantly force a glimpse of hope in what now looks like a far-fetched reality to most people.
Just as these young visionaries attempt to defy the odds, international intervention and support are pivotal to help Sudan escape the clutches of this devastating conflict. Let Sudan serve as a catalyst for the change that was meant to be. Diplomatic engagement, humanitarian aid, and assistance in facilitating peaceful negotiations can all contribute.
The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated. It represents more than just a cessation of violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people. The international community should dismantle the prevailing state of indifference worldwide. The fight against indifference extends far beyond the borders of Sudan. It is a fight that demands our attention and commitment on a global scale of solidarity. We must challenge the systems that perpetuate indifference and inequality in our own societies. We must stand up against injustice and apathy wherever we find it.
This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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