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Bloody Times: Sudan’s Counter-Revolutionary War

11 min read.

Despite its foreign allies and legitimizers, the military has failed to crush the new self-organized peoples’ committees. The popular revolutionary forces have held power in the streets for more than 1000 days and the resistance cannot be easily broken.



Bloody Times: Sudan’s Counter-Revolutionary War
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In April 2019, an alliance of civilian forces in Sudan finally removed Omar al-Bashir’s genocidal militaro-Islamist regime. After years of continuous rebellions, the alliance of workers, students, progressive women, youths, small farmers, and cultural workers created resistance committees to direct energies at fully disrupting the military’s chokehold over the society. From December 2018 to April 2019 the tempo of the demonstrations and rebellions forced sections of the military to oust Bashir. After the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s government, there was a power sharing agreement between the military and civilians. The Constitutional Declaration of August 2019 created the Transitional Sovereignty Council where the emphasis was on the transitional arrangements, underlining the commitment for the military to hand over power by April 2022.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan became the chairman of the Sovereignty Council. General Burhan had also served as a regional army commander in Darfur, in western Sudan, when approximately 300,000 people were killed, and millions of others displaced in fighting from 2003 to 2008. This genocidal violence was widely publicized in Africa, with loud calls for Bashir and his generals to be held accountable for the killings in Darfur. General Burhan had acted pre-emptively when the popular demonstrations exposed the atrocities of the military. Thus, in spite of the fact that al-Burhan had been closely aligned with Bashir, he manoeuvred to take control of the military and the transition by removing Lt. Gen. Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf. Al-Burhan presented himself as an opponent of Bashir by pretending to side with the protesting masses who were calling for the removal of the military and the dismantling of militias.

Al-Burhan’s deputy in this moment of Machiavellian machinations was Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo had achieved international notoriety as a commander of the notorious Janjaweed militias responsible for the genocidal violence in Darfur. His paramilitary forces, organized within the faction called Rapid Support Forces (RSF), were Bashir’s shock troops whose government became a mercenary force fighting for the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, and for General Khalifa Haftar’s war in Libya. After 2015, there were up to 15,000 Sudanese military and paramilitary deployed by the Saudis to fight the Houthis. Flush with resources from the alliance with Russia in the gold mining and export sector, the RSF had in a short period amassed millions of dollars. General Burhan had tolerated the alliance with Dagalo but had become increasingly concerned as Dagalo built up his militia forces to over 100,000.

It is these two factions from the Darfur mess that are at war with each other to decide which faction will prevail to crush the Sudanese people. The clash between the two had intensified following the 2021 military coup that ended the civilian role in the transition, and broke out in open warfare on the weekend of 15 April 2023. The alliance between al-Burhan and Dagalo had been a marriage of convenience as neither faction supported the breaking of the economic power of the military and the militias. A genuine transition away from militaristic oppression and the cheapening of human life demanded breaking the economic power of the military in state and commercial institutions.

Organized in a manner similar to the military capitalists in Egypt, through the military and intelligence services, top generals were involved in more than 400 of the major state enterprises, including agricultural conglomerates, banks, telecommunications, medical equipment import companies, gold mining, transport, and real estate. With this economic supremacy, the military refused to hand over power. As the date for the handover of control to civilians became closer, al-Burhan staged a coup d’état on 25 October 2021 with the support of Dagalo, ousting the civilian government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

The alliance between al-Burhan and Dagalo had been a marriage of convenience as neither faction supported the breaking of the economic power of the military and the militias.

The 2021 removal of the civilian prime minister came in the wake of efforts to give teeth to the “Commission for Dismantling the June 30, 1989 Regime, Removal of Empowerment and Corruption, and Recovering Public Funds.”  The civilian minister and the civilian bureaucrats were not only exposing and uprooting the network of companies owned by the Islamists forced out of power in 2019, but also the tentacles of the commercial empires owned by senior generals. The civilian leadership wanted access to the vast sums available to the generals. Hamdok had become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the military’s entanglement in the economy and both generals felt threatened by the objective to dismantle the military’s economic stranglehold.

April 2019 to April 2023: From uprising to revolution

The 2019 uprisings in Sudan brought together all the forces fighting for social change. Organized under the umbrella of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) the alliance brought together workers, students, progressive intellectuals, cultural artists, farmers, and professionals in a loose, but democratic network. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) created a new political force in Sudan. But the FFC included the traditional political careerists who had sold out the Sudanese people on numerous occasions since independence in 1956. The FFC was itself being challenged by more progressive elements in Sudan. The base of this opposition to compromise with the military were the youth and mobilized progressive women. Resistance committees emerged in all parts of the country to organize the uprisings, oppose the military, and hold the FFC accountable. When the FFC dithered in declaring their complete opposition to militarism, the progressive women and youths pushed the demands for change beyond elections and power sharing. It was within the struggles between the resistance committees and the military that the uprisings evolved from protests to a revolutionary situation.

The three elements that Vladimir Lenin recognized as central to the revolutionary situation were now apparent in Sudan: (i) When it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to rule in the old way; (ii) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (iii) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but in turbulent times are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.

All of these three elements of the revolutionary situation had emerged in Sudan when the upper classes were unable to rule in the old ways. Incessant negotiations between the military and their supporters in Washington, Paris, Riyadh, Dubai and Moscow failed to weaken the protracted popular struggles. The military proceeded to shoot down the people in the streets. With every demonstration and neighbourhood confrontation, the militant resistance committees matured to become a defensive front against militarism, exploitation, divisions, and manipulation. Young Sudanese women emerged as the vanguard force pushing the ideas of revolutionary change and opposing the Arabist/Islamist consciousness that had been unleashed to divide this multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-religious society. The traditional middle strata and their bureaucrats who were looking to London, Washington, and Dubai could not keep abreast with the changing resistance on the ground. These were the forces led by Hamdok that were swept aside on 25 October 2021, leaving the confrontation between the military and their imperial backers on one side and the organized resistance of the mobilized popular forces on the other.

Objective alliance between Washington and Moscow in Sudan

After the removal of Omar al-Bashir, the United States and the European Union worked hand in glove with the United Nations to orchestrate a transition process that would disempower the people. Western embassies in Khartoum organized numerous meetings to feel out the depth of the popular mobilization. The United States worked with Israel to build new relations between the genocidal generals of Sudan by bringing the generals into the so-called Abraham Accords. The generals under Bashir had fought for France and the US in Libya to remove Gaddafi, had fought in Chad, and were fighting in Yemen. As an inducement to collaborate with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Sudan was removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

This collaboration between Israel and the generals formed part of the regional strategy by a section of global capital to isolate Iran. The regional alignment against Iran included Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. The European Union created its own alliance with the militarists by pledging hundreds of millions of euros for the “Khartoum Process”, a multinational effort to empower the Hemedti militia forces to manage migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe. This opened a new front for human trafficking by the RSF.

The United States and the European Union worked hand in glove with the United Nations to orchestrate a transition process that would disempower the people.

Objectively, Russia was part of this grouping with the Western oppressive forces in the Sudan. Of the two military factions, the Russians were in a firm alliance with the gold traders and hustlers through the Wagner private security group. Both factions of the military were and are highly dependent on Russia for military capital. China was a silent partner in this unprincipled array of forces. The Chinese capitalists worked with all sides in the region: Israel, Iran, Qatar and the Wahabist conservative religious forces. As the crisis of capitalism intensified, the Russians had gained a foothold in the mining and export of gold from Sudan.

This alliance between the Emiratis, Saudis, Sudanese, and Israeli forces in the plunder of the gold fields came to international attention as the Western propaganda organs identified the Wagner Group as the prime beneficiary of the plunder of the gold fields in the Darfur region. The Wagner group of paramilitary capitalists from Russia built a formidable alliance with the RSF forces to the point where the capital resources of the RSF placed them in a position to challenge the established military that were involved in accumulation through the state.

The lucrative gold mining and trading operations of the RSF gave confidence to the faction of the military under Hemedti. The alliance started to crumble when the older “professional military forces” sought to dismantle the RSF and militia forces. Under the terms of the transition to democratic rule in the Sudan, the military had sought immunity from the National Security Service (NSC) for the criminal activities unleashed since the Bashir pogroms. After the 2021 coup d’état, the progressive forces had coalesced into a more coherent force to oppose the military. These forces placed the three Nos on the table: No negotiation, No partnership, No foreign military intervention.

The generals under Bashir had fought for France and the US in Libya to remove Gaddafi, had fought in Chad, and were fighting in Yemen.

The coalescing of the popular forces was manifest in the completion of the Revolutionary Charter For Establishing People’s Power (RCEPP). The Charter made explicit the position of the resistance committees that there would be “overall reform and restructuring of the armed forces, including review of its laws, tasks, responsibilities and force size, resulting in a unified and professional national army, capable of playing its main role of safeguarding the people, the constitution and the country’s borders.” This alliance of progressive forces opposed the Framework Agreement between one faction of the resistance and the military. The Framework Agreement signed on December 2022 retreated from the demands of the 1989 Regime: removal of empowerment and corruption, and recovery of public funds.  The pact outlining the Framework Agreement set no date for a final agreement or the appointment of a prime minister and there were differences on sensitive issues including the dismantling of the militias.

Due to the fact that the RCEPP had published its demands and the requirements for a genuine transition, those parties and militia forces that wanted to do deals with Washington to isolate the revolutionaries were themselves isolated. In their isolation, the two strong military factions began to attack each other.

Both factions would not heed the call of the people for accountability for the crimes of the Bashir regime. This call for accountability within the society was made explicit in the following statement:

“Accountability shall include individuals who organized and participated in war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocides and ethnic cleansings in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, the southern Blue Nile, South Sudan, eastern Sudan, Khartoum, and other parts of the country. All individuals who participated in the crimes during and after the December Revolution shall be brought to trial inside Sudan and by the Sudanese, in accordance with the Interim Constitution, which shall stipulate for the legal process of the trials through establishing special immediate trials.”

Both factions of the military are opposed to the calls for accountability and for the new interim power forces to “combat all practices of corruption, recovery of looted public funds and assets, and restore privatized companies through a Commission of Combating Corruption and Recovery of Looted Public Funds and Assets”. Both factions are also opposed to the plans of the resistance committees to “place all state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as well as those owned by the military, intelligence and police services under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Finance”.

Changed regional situation

The global insecurity generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine affected all parts of the world. Additionally, the weaponization of finance and the freezing of Russian assets created alarm in all parts of the world. If the US Treasury could freeze US$600 billion, then it could act against other countries. There was renewed interest in many countries to seek relations with the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) formation and the BRICS bank. In the midst of the global financial uncertainty generated by the US banking system, the Chinese brokered a de-escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the Saudis had reduced oil production to push up prices, despite President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia to plead for an increase in production to offset the challenges faced by Europe because of the sanctions against Russia.

The tiff between the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the US threw the regional alliances into a predicament. When Chinese diplomatic efforts brought about a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the future of the Sudanese mercenary forces fighting the Houthis was put in question; the Sudanese military would have to be withdrawn from Yemen. Secondly, the premises of the Abraham Accords that had brought about the alliance between the military and the Israelis were now in doubt. There could no longer be a focus on Iran when the right-wing anti-people government of Israel was unleashing violence and oppression inside and outside Israel. The Saudis, Egyptians, Sudanese and Moroccans who were willing to sacrifice the rights of the Palestinian peoples were now faced with a choice: join with Israel and the US against the Palestinians, or join with the Palestinians, the Egyptian and Sudanese masses to oppose militarism and fundamentalism. Russia was now faced with the question of how to move forward with its agreement with Israel in Syria. The contradictions within contradictions in Sudan and in the region broke out in the fighting between the RSF and the military. The two factions are fighting to decide which faction would emerge as the ally of Washington to crush the resistance committees.

Maturation of the revolutionary situation in the Sudan

The two military factions of the counter-revolution that are today fighting each other have for the past three years killed hundreds if not thousands of people who are agitating for a new political dispensation. Despite being shot down in the streets, the resistance committees have demonstrated another form of robust people’s power by their resistance and by forming the nucleus of a new state.

Despite its foreign allies and legitimizers, the military has failed to crush the new self-organized peoples’ committees. In the midst of the fighting between the two factions, the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) and the resistance committees have called for the people to form neighbourhood peace committees:

“We call on the forces of the living revolution, including the resistance committees in the neighborhoods, trade union forces, and professional bodies, to take the initiative to protect neighborhoods in villages, towns and cities, through the formation of (community peace committees). We are fully aware of the absence of the state and its institutions, and we have no choice but to activate the role of our peaceful civil society and the forces of the living revolution that have been the capital of our local communities for a long time.”

The community peace committees will bring the Sudanese revolution into the phase of armed self-defence.

The name calling and fighting between the two factions of the military will continue to unleash death and destruction in the Sudan. But the accumulated experiences over the past three years have ensured that the resistance cannot be easily broken; the popular revolutionary forces have held power in the streets for more than 1000 days.

Those who have studied the rhythm of revolution and counter-revolution over the past 150 years will remember the writings of Karl Marx who had celebrated the fighters of the Paris Commune. In his communication to the First International, Marx commented positively on the communards surviving more than 71 days. Then, the communards were crushed by the invading German army.

When Chinese diplomatic efforts brought about a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the future of the Sudanese mercenary forces fighting the Houthis was put in question.

There is no invading army to save either side in the current counter-revolutionary war in the Sudan. Both sides will fight to the death to remain in power.

The major outside forces that can make a difference now are two: the first is Russia, which is connected to Hamdan and the RSF through the gold trade. The second is the Egyptian military; the military capitalists in Sudan have long historical links with the Egyptian militarists and Islamists. Other smaller elements include the military of Eritrea, which Hemedti recently visited.

Progressive forces internationally must call for the arrest and trial of the military forces that have unleashed genocidal violence on the Sudanese peoples since 1989. The Resistance Committees’ and the popular forces are calling for solidarity and non-intervention to push the process of transition from militarism to one where the peoples of Sudan can enter into new relations.

Progressives internationally must transcend the propaganda war of the bourgeois forces who are quaking at the prospect of this counter-revolution inspiring millions of Egyptians who can take courage from Sudan if their leaders continue in the alliance with Israel against the Palestinian peoples.

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Horace Campbell is Professor of African American Studies and Political Science, Syracuse University. He is the author of Global NATO and the Catastrophic Failure in Libya, Monthly Review Press, 2013. Mahder Serekberhan is a Political Science PhD student at Syracuse University. She is the Vice Chairperson of the Global Pan African Movement, North America Delegation.


‘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.



‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened
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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.

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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.



The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
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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 servicesCritics 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.

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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.



Pattern of Life and Death: Camp Simba and the US War on Terror
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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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