Devolution Has Not Delivered for the People of North-Eastern Kenya9 min read.
Despite the pouring of billions of shillings into the region, the people of north-eastern Kenya have yet to feel the benefits of devolution.
Kenyans again went to the polls on 9 August 2022 to elect their representatives at the national and county levels. The elections were the third in Kenya under the 2010 constitution that introduced devolution. Instituted in 2013, devolution sought to bring government closer to the people by devolving political and economic resources to Kenya’s 47 county governments, to better address the local needs of Kenyans.
In the last decade, devolution could potentially have transformed the lives of the people of north-eastern Kenya but, unfortunately, this has not happened, despite the accrual of substantial funds and political power; the billions of shillings that have gone into the region have not brought improvements. On the contrary, some sectors such as healthcare and water service provision have seen a decline or remained the same despite the billions that have been pumped into these sectors in the last 10 years. North-eastern Kenya remains one of the most underdeveloped regions in Kenya, lagging behind in almost all development indicators. Its people are among the poorest in the country, with the majority lacking access to basic services and infrastructure such as water and healthcare, good roads and electricity.
The lack of progress in the last ten years is largely attributed to poor governance and the massive theft and misappropriation of public resources by elected leaders, the region’s elites and public officials. All indications are that massive graft, corruption, and misallocation of political and economic resources have stymied the region’s ability to take advantage of devolution and catch up with the rest of Kenya. Resources meant for the population have been misappropriated and the leadership has nothing to show for the ten years since devolution; blatant theft and embezzlement of public funds and poor governance have been its defining characteristic in the last ten years.
This article is a review of devolution in north-eastern Kenya ten years after its inception. It focuses on the three north-eastern counties of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera and is a reflection of the writer’s assessment of devolution in north-eastern Kenya over the last ten years. The situation described above is similar elsewhere in the larger northern Kenya in the counties of Marsabit, Isiolo, Tana River, Samburu, Turkana, and West Pokot, but this piece focuses exclusively on the three north-eastern counties.
Highlighting the failures of devolution and how it has not delivered for the people of north-eastern Kenya, is by no means advocating for the previous Nairobi-based centralised governance system where resources were shared only by a few at the centre (1963-2013), a system that had neglected and marginalized the region for far too long, denying it investments, the cause of the predicament the region faces today.
The current failure of devolution in northern Kenya is partly tied to the failure at the centre; the ills of the centre have been replicated at the periphery. From 2013, under Jubilee, the national government experienced astronomical levels of corruption and theft of public funds affecting public sector institutions than any other time in Kenya’s history. National state oversight institutions mandated to fight corruption at both levels of government were unable or unwilling to effectively carry out their oversight duties. Also of importance to note is that the widespread allegations of corruption and misappropriation of public funds are not unique to the counties of north-eastern Kenya but are also reported across most of the country’s 47 counties and this has greatly demoralized Kenyans.
Blatant theft of public resources
In the north-eastern region, county officials and the leadership, including governors, executives and other public officials have been stealing from the people. Over the years, the office of the Auditor General has exposed massive misappropriation of resources and irregular procurement rules. General public perception in the region is that the leaders are not serving the people’s interests, but are only enriching themselves with the resources with which they have been entrusted, with impunity and zero accountability. As a consequence, the electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.
Over the last decade, and during the tenure of the last two county administrations, the elected governors turned the north-eastern counties into family “fiefdoms” and “small monarchies” similar to Middle East monarchies where those who benefit most are the immediate family members, close friends and cronies. Nepotism and favouritism were widespread, and governors and their appointed county executives used relatives, including extended family members and close friends as proxies to siphon off public resources meant to benefit citizens. Across the three counties, the governors and other senior county public officials placed close family members and relatives on the county payroll as ghost workers with no job descriptions, actual portfolios or offices. Individuals who had previously never worked in any major capacity and had little or no experience were given high-paying public sector jobs only because they belong to the right families or know the right people.
The electorates have given up and resigned themselves to their fate, leaving it to God to punish the thieving elites in the hereafter.
Governors, county executives and elected local leaders also used proxies and companies owned by friends and close family members to obtain lucrative multimillion contracts. For the five years the governor and the county executives were in charge, they and their proxies remained inaccessible and out of reach of the ordinary mwananchi.
A small portion of the loot was laundered in the region. Much of the looted money was laundered in major cities such as Nairobi and Mombasa, where the county leadership used the ill-gotten wealth to invest in residential properties and shopping malls. County governors and their executives bought houses, apartments and palatial homes worth hundreds of thousands of US dollars in Nairobi’s upscale residential areas such as Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Parklands, Karen, Spring Valley and others. In the Eastleigh neighbourhood the looted public money was “reinvested” in businesses in the form of shopping malls. Some used the looted public resources to marry second and third wives or to purchase vehicles worth many times their annual salaries as county officials, while others used the plundered money to go to Mecca on pilgrimage and “contribute” to religious causes such as building mosques and Islamic madarasa schools. Governors, specifically, moved some of their ill-gotten wealth abroad, especially to the Middle East and Turkey. Favourite destinations include cities such as Dubai, Ankara, Abu Dhabi and others, where the governors bought palatial holiday homes and apartments.
North-eastern governors opened offices in Nairobi where they would spend a good part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters. Governors and county executive members also held county executive meetings in Nairobi instead of the county headquarters. You would also find that many county officials such as executive members, chief officers and members of county assemblies were ever present in Nairobi, operating from the city instead of operating from their respective county headquarters.
Why is this the case? How are elites able to steal with impunity? The stealing that happens in the counties mostly happens through the flouting of public procurement rules, inflating the price of projects and at times even budgeting for non-existent ones. Kenya has been plagued by corruption since independence, but corruption and blatant theft of public resources became commonplace from 2013 when the Jubilee Party led by Uhuru Kenyatta came to power. Under the Jubilee government, corruption cases involving the blatant theft of billions of shillings of taxpayers’ money became the norm. Pervasive institutional corruption at the centre spread to the periphery through devolution and, therefore, political and economic devolution to Kenya’s 47 counties only enabled the creation of another cadre of corrupt elites with the ability, through elections, to capture institutions and resources. What used to happen at the centre has been replicated at the county levels through devolution; county leaders plunder everything from nationally devolved county funds to donor contributions. They take for themselves and their proxies the most lucrative contracts. Development projects in the region have become contractor- and vendor-driven, with the governors, deputy governors, county executives and elected members of county assemblies being the biggest beneficiaries.
North-eastern governors opened offices in Nairobi where they would spend a good part of their time instead of operating from their county headquarters.
The looting of public resources was successful and continued unabated due to weak government oversight institutions such as the anti-corruption agency, the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), the Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The lack of effective anti-corruption mechanisms and political will at the national level to fight graft plays a major role in fuelling graft and theft at all levels of government. In essence, there was little to no risk of being held accountable and this explains why the leaders are unafraid. Not a single culprit who has stolen from the people in the last ten years is behind bars because of what he or she has done, despite the scale of the corruption and mismanagement.
Poor service delivery
The mismanagement, graft and elite capture of county resources has resulted in poor service delivery for the people of north-eastern counties. A major challenge is that the leadership has been unable to prioritize development that would transform and improve service delivery. Despite the billions in investment—cumulatively, the three counties received close to Shs100 billion in devolved funds over the last ten years—there is nothing much to show for it. Also, the leadership has simply been unwilling to prioritize and invest in areas of public need where the impact would be greatest. Instead, funds have been spent as they come in poorly thought-out contractor-driven “development” projects. As a consequence, crucial sectors such as livestock and water, healthcare and education provision, where the needs of the population lie, have been ignored and, in some instances, the quality of services has deteriorated compared to the period before devolution.
In the counties, the easiest way to steal public funds is through infrastructure projects that are of no benefit to people, such as repairing a rural road that does not actually require refurbishment. Millions in resources have been poured into the construction of structures that now lie idle. For instance, it is quite common to build a structure in a certain village and label it “a health centre” or “a market” even as it remains unoccupied and abandoned. No health workers, equipment and drugs are deployed to the structure to make it an operational health facility. Office blocks are also built which then remain unoccupied.
To symbolize misplaced priorities, the leadership has invested millions in ultra-modern office blocks, and residences for the leadership, instead of fighting poverty and investing in critical infrastructure such as water, healthcare and fodder for livestock at this time of severe drought.
The leadership is simply not investing in priority areas. The livestock sector, the main source of livelihood and the economic mainstay of the region remains highly underinvested. The response to the ongoing drought emergency is a testament to the ineffectiveness of the county leadership in responding to emergencies and assisting people at a time of need. Had the county and national governments intervened and provided the needed water and fodder for the livestock, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of head of livestock, which are people’s livelihoods, could have been prevented. The pastoralists have had no one to turn to as the response from both the counties and the national government has been lacklustre; they have had to fend for themselves, buying water for their livestock from private water vendors at an exorbitant cost. On average, one water truck costs between KSh10,000 and Sh60,000 depending on the distance from water sources, which in many cases are at the county headquarters. I witnessed residents of Wajir County who live far from the county headquarters having to wait for “their turn” to receive water supplied by trucks contracted by the county government. In one village less than 60 kilometres from Wajir town, residents had to wait more than 14 days for their turn to receive water. And when the one truck arrived at the village of 300-plus households, it could only provide water for the people but not for their livestock. In many of the less accessible villages in Wajir, help from the county government never arrived.
The easiest way to steal public funds is through infrastructure projects that are of no benefit to people, such as repairing a rural road that does not actually require refurbishment.
North-eastern is the most water-stressed region in Kenya, the number one hurdle that the people of the region face. Obtaining drinking water for both people and their livestock is a major challenge. Unfortunately, the region’s leadership has not been willing to find a sustainable solution to the perennial water shortage, the most common response to “alleviate” the water problem in the last decade being the construction of expensive water pans and boreholes. The big ugly holes dotting the landscape serve as temporary rain water reservoirs, but do little to solve the perennial water problem in the region. The leadership prefers them because they are easy to implement as they do not involve much technical skill and are normally constructed at inflated cost. Water pans are not a sustainable long-term solution as they dry up almost immediately at the onset of the dry season.
Ten years after devolution, and after receiving billions of shillings annually including in allocations for the water sector, residents of Mandera County headquarters do not have access to running water in their homesteads. The Mandera leadership has been unable to tap the waters of River Daawa, which flows through the county headquarters for most of the year. The county residents rely largely on commercial water vendors.
The World Bank-funded Water and Sanitation Project meant to connect households to piped water, provide community water points, and improve sanitation services in Wajir Town, the Wajir County headquarters is failing, largely because of lack of county leadership and elite competition for contracts related to the project.
Half of the homesteads in Garissa Town do not have access to running water. Those that do have access to water benefited from a water project that was undertaken in the town during President Mwai Kibaki’s 2003-2007 administration. This means that from 2013 to 2022 the Garissa County leadership has not done much to expand water provision. This is despite River Tana, Kenya’s longest and largest river, flowing right through Garissa Town to drain into the Indian Ocean.
Water pans are not a sustainable long-term solution as they dry up almost immediately at the onset of the dry season.
The health sector is an area that has seen a deterioration in services during devolution. Hospitals and health centres have been incapacitated by lack of staff, lack of adequate medical equipment and essential supplies such as drugs and laboratory reagents.
The three main referral hospitals in the region are run down. Public health facilities have collapsed to the extent that they do not offer basic services such as CT Scans; citizens are forced to seek such services in private facilities at exorbitant prices. When medical equipment such as MRI machines and CT Scans break down, the authorities take months to have them fixed. As an example, when the MRI machine at Garissa’s main referral hospital broke down, it took the administration months to have it repaired.
Statutory government oversight institutions such as the EACC, DCI and the DPP have spectacularly failed to rescue the counties from the thieving elites. Despite the wanton theft and loss of billions, the corrupt are walking free and are not held accountable. No single public official has been apprehended and convicted for stealing and misappropriating public resources in the last ten years. The national government must prioritize the fight against corruption and theft of public resources, and reform and empower anti-corruption agencies if the fruits of devolution are to reach the people of north-eastern Kenya and the larger northern region as a whole.
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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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