Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy13 min read.
Examining the recent and brutal attempts to suppress the Sudanese revolution, Magdi el Gizouli looks at the efforts by the regime and its various factions to seize the initiative from the streets. In recent months the ruthless figure of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka Himeidti), the leader of the infamous Rapid Support Forces, has moved into the centre of Sudanese politics. However, will the ‘neighbourhood committees’ be able to translate their revolutionary zeal into mass political action that can unite rural and urban discontent and challenge the regimes hold on power?
The last ten days of Ramadan, Islam’s fasting month, are supposed to be a period of spiritual transcendence. By this time, the discipline of fasting and nightly prayer is expected to have smoothed over the ugly creases of the believer’s soul in preparation for a new beginning. Likewise, it is the year’s peak shopping season, as families prepare for the Eid festivities and the associated cycles of gift exchanges. Not this year in Khartoum. Instead the remarkably peaceful city had on appointment with a ‘katla’, vernacular Sudanese for mass and senseless killing.
In the early hours of 29 Ramadan, 3 June, joint troops of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), stormed the site of the massive sit-in surrounding the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) with the aim of crushing the protest movement that had for almost six continuous months captured Sudan’s politics. The attackers did not spare bullets, within hours around 130 unarmed protesters were killed, some clinging to the concrete blocks and bricks of the barricades they had anxiously guarded throughout the months of the sit-in. Many corpses were pulled out of the Nile tied to rocks.
The tent city which constituted the geography of an alternative Sudan in the minds of its inhabitants was soon in flames. Throughout the months of the protest sit-in, the tent city was a Woodstock of sorts on the Nile, a site where urban Sudan struggled to reinvent itself in a fervour of festive creativity and solidarity. The protesters reimagined their world and in exercising their imagination forged new relations that transgressed the boundaries of patriarchal authority and the established social order. The bubbling democracy of the qiada – Arabic shorthand for the [army] headquarters – became a cultural attraction. A middle class Khartoumian would go to work in the morning, drive home in the late afternoon to pick up the kids and stroll through the qiada tent city in the evening in the company of family and friends.
As an organisational form for protest the qiada sit-in was wildly successful, probably far beyond the expectation of the parties involved. While it lasted, it was a place where mostly young women and men could live out their claim to identity as real citizens . Cash transactions were the exception in the qiada sit-in as the protestors fashioned an economy of their own devised around the socialist instinct of ‘from each according to her ability and to each according to her need’. Food, medical care, public health services, security and transport were organised on a voluntary basis and proved remarkably resilient. A minor flu epidemic, known as the ‘qiada cold’ troubled the protesters but otherwise the massive sit in registered no other public health crisis thanks to robust and efficient public health measures. From afar, expatriate Sudanese, contributed funds and information technology hardware as well an explosion of sympathetic protests in Western capitals.
The attackers of 3 June were not satisfied with destruction of the human and physical structure of protest. Their aim was to extinguish the drive that had propelled the thousands upon thousands of young Sudanese into political action during a winter of revolutionary crisis, so they raped men and women. By the evening, residents of the smaller towns down the Nile from Khartoum were fishing corpses out of the river. In their hurry to clear the protest site, the valiant butchers of the RSF and the NISS ordered their troops to dispose of the young bodies in the river clumsily tied to concrete blocks in an effort to keep them down in the deep, silent for ever, but even as hapless corpses the protesters seemed to be challenging the will of Sudan’s security lords, floating up and out into open sight. The sacrilege was not intended to hide the obvious crime but was primarily a demonstration of brutality and immunity from accountability.
The massive sit-in around the army headquarters in Khartoum was the culmination of five months of popular protests. The scale and tenacity of the sit-in forced the hand of the military-security establishment to do away with President Bashir and declare a new dispensation. For some time already a liability, President Bashir was politically eliminated by his very generals. His deputy, Lieutenant General Awad ibn Ouf declared on state television on 11 April that a transitional military council headed by himself would take over authority. Outside military headquarters, thousands of jubilant protesters were not convinced and demanded the transfer of power to a civilian government. Soldiers and junior officers at the army headquarters were equally unsatisfied with Ibn Ouf. Within less than 48 hours Ibn Ouf appeared again on state television, this time to announce that he was stepping down as head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the official title of the ruling junta. Ibn Ouf named Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan as his successor, another army general with no known record of association with the Islamic Movement. Significantly, al-Burhan was the liaison officer of the Sudanese military’s deployment in the Saudi-Emirati-led campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In his first address to the nation, al-Burhan made remarkable overtures to the protest movement. He announced that no attempt will be made to break up the massive sit-in around the army headquarters and declared that the former president and leading figures of his party, the National Congress Party (NCP), will be arrested and eventually face justice. An announcement of the composition of the TMC followed. Unlike Sudan’s previous juntas, the TMC is not exclusively a ‘military’ organ in the strict sense of the word. The officers of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) who had long enjoyed political dominance were now forced to share their authority with separate armed formations, the NISS and the RSF, both creatures of the Bashir era. However, the TMC is by all means a re-creation of president Bashir’s own ‘security committee’, a central organ under his chairmanship that joins military, security, police and militia bosses and is replicated at the various level of administration as a grid of oppression.
The emergence of a strongman
Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka ‘Himeidti’), the leader of the infamous RSF emerged as the deputy chairman of the TMC and the critical agent of ‘change’ at the top. Himeidti, the name is a motherly diminutive form for ‘my little Mohamed’, was born in a family of agro-pastoralists north of Kutum. His people, the Mahariyya , a subsection of the wider Rizeigat, are predominantly pastoralists whose subsistence existence was convulsed by the penetration of commodification and the cash economy in twentieth century Sudan. The inadequacies of the Mahariyya ’s pastoral livelihood were laid bare in the 1984-1986 famine that struck Kordofan and Darfur as part of the wider Sahelian drought. Mohamed Hamdan the boy and his kin were displaced by the famine to Nyala, Darfur’s largest city and trade hub connecting regional trade networks that stretch through Chad, the Central African Republic and beyond, and into Libya and Egypt. Many Mahariyya became settled millet farmers around Mellit, others remained camel herders. Whether settled or on the move most had to supplant their livelihoods with alternative strategies connected to the cash economy including labour migration, trade, and petty commodity production.
Many Mahariyya men, including Mohamed Hamdan, flocked to Libya as migrant labourers or traders. In one study carried out in Mellit, four out of every ten Mahariyya households had a male family member working in Libya. Mohamed Hamdan, the youngster, began his career as a merchant procuring goods from Nyala to Mellit. By the mid-1990s he was engaged in cross-border trade between Darfur, Chad and Libya. When the Darfur insurgency erupted in 2003, he was a livestock merchant with a base in Mellit and operations mainly in Libya . The war encircled Mellit. Both farming and livestock migration were severely curtailed while the closure of the Sudanese-Libyan border and widespread looting endangered trade routes and restricted the movement of labour. Mahariyya traders including Mohamed Hamdan Daglo were under the impression that they were specifically targeted by the Darfuri insurgents. For many, Mellit became a place of siege. Two of Mohamed Hamdan’s brothers were killed in an incident on their way to Libya when insurgents attacked their trade caravan and looted their camels close to Karb al-Toum.
The racialisation of the conflict in Darfur was the background from which Mohamed Hamdan Daglo emerged as militia leader of his angry Mahariyya and Rizeigat kin. He joined the Sudanese army’s Border Guards, a militia formation fighting on the side of the government against the Darfur insurgents in 2003 and began a recruitment campaign in Nyala amongst his own ‘nas’ (Arabic for people) starting with a squad of 200 kinsmen. The brutal efficiency of Himeidti’s forces soon attracted the attention of Khartoum’s rulers. At the time, General Ibn Ouf was head of military intelligence. Himeidti demanded the formalisation of his militia and their inclusion in the wage-system of the SAF.
Three years later, Himeidti was granted court with President Bashir. Khartoum had signed the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) granting southern Sudan the right of self-determination as well as the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement with the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M) faction led by Minni Minawi granting the rebel group regional authority over Darfur. In response, the still active Darfur rebel groups led by the then powerful Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) formed the umbrella National Redemption Front (NRF). The JEM under the leadership of its late founder, Khalil Ibrahim, was beginning to break the racial barrier in Darfur and actively winning supporters among Darfuri pastoralist Arabs including Himeidti’s own Mahariyya . Himeidti was in a position to negotiate. He asked for a share of power akin to the southern Sudanese militia leaders who had fought alongside the government in southern Sudan. The government was reluctant to accept his demands. In response, he camped outside Nyala with his troops in protest leaving the demoralised SAF units to their fate in Darfur’s harsh war-fields.
Soon, the Mahariyya merchant turned militia leader was in a position to punch even higher. He proved his worth in the bitter battles that followed the 2008 JEM attack on the capital Khartoum. In Darfur, JEM’s forces encircled al-Fasher and Himeidti came to the rescue after pleas from the garrison commander at the time, the SAF officer Imad al-Din Adawi.
As a reward, President Bashir summoned the war hero to Khartoum for decoration. Himeidti was granted the medal of courage and the authority and funding to expand recruitment under the umbrella of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’, for all practical purposes a private militia outside the formal chain of command of the SAF. President Bashir and his officers effectively outsourced their entire counterinsurgency operations to the RSF. Himeidti’s shock troops were in deployment across Sudan’s war zones, in Darfur, in South Kordofan and in the Blue Nile. When a wave of riots erupted in Khartoum in September 2013 against the government’s decision to slash fuel and bread subsidies in the aftermath of the independence of South Sudan it was the RSF’s teenage fighters who did the shooting in the capital. Hundreds of protesters lost their lives in the confrontation.
Thanks to Himeidti, herdsmen from northern Darfur had tapped into a new livelihood resource, war on commission. Geopolitics created ample opportunities for a mobile and capable fighting force on rent in a volatile region. Himeidti troops functioned as an extension of the European Union’s borders against intruding migrants deep in the African Sahara and as a long arm for the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their battle against Houthi militants in Yemen. At the command of a loyal fighting force spread across the country and backed by powerful and rich patrons in the region, Himeidti was ready to displace the ageing resident of the palace on the Blue Nile. When coup officers confronted Bashir in the early hours of 11 April, he shouted that this is a Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian plot carried out by RSF commander Himeidti and the NISS boss Salah Gosh, or so claim Khartoum’s loud whisperers.
Himeidti’s rise from camel merchant in the Darfur wilderness to militiaman to ruler in the heart of the Nile Valley is a remarkable feat of historical cunning. The most recent example of such a transformation in power dates back to 1885 when Abdullahi son of Mohamed Taur Shein (arabic for vicious bull), a Baggara faki (holy man) from Darfur and Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi’s earliest disciple, succeeded the charismatic mystic and revolutionary from Dongola to become the Khalifa, ruler of the nascent Mahdist state. Abdullahi the Khalifa was significantly challenged by the Mahdi’s powerful kin, the country’s pre-modern coup plotters. Thanks to a massive standing army recruited predominantly from Baqqara herdsmen, the Khalifa persevered, defeated the putschists and was only dislodged from power sixteen years later by British Maxim guns, the first recoil operated machine-gun.
As a child in Omdurman, al-Khalifa’s capital west of the Nile, I went on school trips to the fields of Karari to the north of the town where over twenty thousand Mahdist fighters were massacred in the early hours of 2 September 1898. Every rainy season, some of those brave bones glittered dazzling white in the blazing sun against the reddish-brown soil of the Karari plain.
It is then not much of a surprise that Himeidti’s emergence at the top of the chaotic crowd of Bashir’s last years was perceived as an opportunity in many quarters. As a foreigner to the Khartoum establishment, Himeidti was generously interpreted by some as a hero of the downtrodden who could rework power relations in favour of Sudan’s marginalised peoples and finally win authority from the elite of the riverine heartland. From this perspective, his major achievement is perceived to be the subversion of the SAF, since Sudan’s independence the guarantor of the hegemony of the riverine elite. Accordingly, he became the betting horse of a Darfuri merchant class of predominantly Rizeigat and Zaghawa composition and the politicians and intellectuals in their orbit.
Uniting rural and urban politics
Bashir had managed subnational interests through a system of ethnic politics that involved a division and redivision of state and locality boundaries to match and create ethnic majorities with a dominant position in state and local government under the mantle of the ruling NCP. Hence, power conflicts often took the form of intra-NCP competition and manipulation of competing blocs was a constant preoccupation of the NCP high command. Likewise, ministerial positions at the central level were apportioned according to a complex calculus of political party and ethnic power division and sub-division. In this apportionment of posts and since the eruption of the Darfur insurgency and the secession of south the third position in the formal hierarchy of power, the office of vice president, was the preserve of Darfuri figures as successors to ethnic South Sudanese who had traditionally occupied the post before the independence of South Sudan. As a result, Bashir’s cabinets were more a warehouse of clients and far less so an effective executive. In his late years, he attempted to bypass this dysfunctional state of affairs born out of political convenience by further centralising power into his own hands. He created a series of councils that dealt with critical aspects of government business – defence, economic policy, investment and foreign relations amongst others – under his direct chairmanship that were superior to the individual ministries.
As a countermeasure to Bashir’s rationale of government, the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) demand the formation of a government of ‘meritocrats’ solely drawn from their ranks to rule over a transitional period and pave the way towards free and fair elections. While on first consideration a reasonable demand, government by merit is interpreted by the Rizeigat and Zaghawa nationalists and their allies as a refashioning of the narrow effendiyya nationalism of the riverine heartland at the root of rural grievances and a replay of the exclusionary ‘Sudanisation’ of independence. In a bid to groom a counterforce to the urbanite neo-effendiyya of the FFC, Himeidti and his allies were quick to seek the support of tribal notables from Sudan’s vast and largely impoverished rural worlds with the promise of ethnic representation as a reward. In many ways, Himeidti’s political operation seems to recreate Bashir’s very sultanic politics absent the organisational framework of the big tent NCP.
While the bare-knuckle negotiations between the TMC and the FFC revolve around one character of government, military or civilian, an underlying contradiction remains the rural-urban divide that has long bedevilled Sudan’s politics. Protesters in Sudan’s urban centres crystallised their demands into the singular slogan of ‘civilian’ government while the rustic rural support base of the TMC and its champion Himeidti shout for continuation of ‘military’ rule. The FFC, unfortunately, are yet to imagine a political formula that can provide a bridgehead into rural Sudan. I would argue that the notion of a government of ‘meritocrats’ drawn from Sudan’s best educated cosmopolitans misses the target. Meanwhile, Himeidti was savvy enough to engage the leaders of the Darfur insurgencies he had almost obliterated on the battlefield securing friendly hand-shaking photoshoots and an embryonic alliance.
The brutality of the RSF and the ineloquence of their leader and his many gaffes, he once referred to the minister of higher education as the minister of ‘giraya’, colloquial Sudanese Arabic for learning, were identified by Khartoum’s cosmopolitans as markers of a violent pastoral essence. He was ridiculed as a backward herdsman and as a rogue general in contradistinction to the ‘true’ military college generals of the SAF. In anguish, Khartoum’s political class rummaged the officer corps in search for a ‘enlightened’ soldier who could save the day, crush the RSF with a bold strike of military advantage and rescue the honour of the SAF corps. This political wish acquired the form of myth in popular imagination, the myth of the Atbara armoured battalion expected at any moment in Khartoum. Himeidti and the RSF are as much an expression of the rural crisis as they are of the chaotic war-driven urbanisation of Sudan. In a way, Himeidti is today the political name of Nyala, the trading capital of Darfur that has long displaced Wad Medani in the Gezira heartland as Sudan’s second largest urban centre and possibly the country’s most important commercial hub trading in narcotics and cross-border smuggling of livestock.
The revolutionary challenge from below
Now, in the face of these trials Sudan’s revolutionary surge remains a formidable challenge to Himeidti and his powerful allies and patrons. At the core of revolutionary action is a radical component drawn from urban subalterns who are neither subsumed under the FFC meritocratic model nor liable to co-optation by Himeidti’s pledge of ethnic representation under sultanic authority. The most successful organisational form of this precariat spread across Sudan’s urban landscape is so far the neighbourhood-level ‘resistance committee’. These neighbourhood committees are accessible to precariously employed and unemployed labour and dominated by groups of militants whose political orientations are drawn from confrontation with the abusive and extractive state and the relations of power that sustain it. It is these militant elements, with no recognised place in the social order and with little to gain from its racial hierarchy and ethic building blocs, who have faced the greatest wrath of the military security establishment.
Ahead of the 29 Ramadan massacre state media launched a vicious smear campaign against the protesters of ‘Columbia’, the name the subalterns of the qiada sit-in chose for their favoured spot on the bank of the Nile, for their disregard of middle-class norms. Columbia, state media claimed, had become a site of flagrant moral corruption rife with debauchery, drugs, crime and unnameable social ills. The Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), hitherto the trusted guardian of the revolution, dithered and issued a statement distancing itself from Columbia and its inhabitants. In government speak the 29 Ramadan massacre was hatched as an operation to sweep Columbia ‘clean’ but ran out of control and in the words of the spokesman of the TMC ‘what happened happened!’. Significantly, it was in Columbia where fraternisation between subaltern protesters and their fellow SAF and RSF soldiers was most marked, at times threatening military command and discipline.
The TMC generals, al-Burhan and Himeidti, attempted to reach out to the stricken masses in an effort to soothe the revolutionary anger fuelling the daring protest movement. Himeidti addressed a rally in Mayo and al-Burhan another in Um Badda, both sprawling impoverished and heavily populated neighbourhoods in the outer circle of Khartoum and Omdurman respectively. Himeidti promised the allocation of residential plots to squatters and al-Burhan reproduced the discourse of marginalisation promising a new beginning of social equality with some success but the masses were not satisfied. Both men were incessantly interrupted by cries of ‘madaniyya’ – Arabic for civilian – the catchphrase of the protest movement.
As al-Burhan spoke on 30 June, the anniversary of the 1989 putsch that brought President Bashir to power, demonstrators filled the streets of Khartoum and almost all of Sudan’s major towns in their tens of thousands in a remarkable show of popular will to bring down the rule of the junta and install the pursued ‘madaniyya’. The response of the military-security establishment to this enduring determination was a series of extrajudicial killings targeting militants of the ‘resistance committees’. A policeman who inspected the corpses shot at close range to the head identified one of the slain militants as his own son.
Whatever the outcome of the negotiations between the TMC and the FFC, now mediated by the African Union (AU) and the Ethiopian government as well as a cohort of Western diplomats including newly reappointed US envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, the course of the Sudanese revolution is for the now in the hands of the ‘resistance committees’. Some have claimed local authority in their neighbourhoods toppling the petty autocrats of the Bashir-era ‘popular committees’ and are refashioning micro-authority to fit an emancipatory zeal. The question remains, will they be able to translate this zeal into mass political action that can take on the brutal machinations of the Sudanese state?
This article was first published by ROAPE.
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‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened
With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.
On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:
“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.
The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.
The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.
Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics
The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.
As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.
Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.
The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.
Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.
As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.
Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change
From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.
Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.
Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.
Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:
“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”
Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.
‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’?
Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.
Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:
“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’
These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.
“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.
The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.
Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.
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.
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