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Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab

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For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia in 2011 and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations and emboldened Al Shabaab.

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Kenya Should Get Out of Somalia and Negotiate With Al Shabaab
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Kenya’s military should leave Somalia. The 2011 intervention was billed as quick and short, but instead, it has metastasised into an almost decade-long occupation.

Kenya should depart Somalia for three specific reasons. One, the military campaign designed to “destroy” and “defeat” Al Shabaab, and keep Kenya and Kenyans safe has instead increased the group’s attacks on Kenya and Kenyans. Two, the need for a more robust domestic counterterrorism response to Al Shabaab’s attacks has led to egregious violations of human rights, and in the process, torpedoed the nascent police reform project. Three, the intervention also upended Kenya’s relations with Ethiopia, a vital partner in the Horn of Africa. It eviscerated soft power with Somalia, severely hamstringing Kenya’s diplomatic leverage in the region.

I. Operation Lindi Nchi

Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia took many Horn watchers and me by surprise because this was the first time Kenya undertook an independent military operation outside the United Nations Peacekeeping Operation. Intriguingly, the government provided little public information regarding Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Defend the Country).

But to any discerning person with a passing interest in the Horn of Africa’s history and politics, Kenya’s strategy, operation, the tactic, and geopolitical goal of the mission was at best foggy.

I was a young Horn of Africa analyst when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) crossed the border and entered Somalia in November 2011. To make sense of the intervention, I sought the views of three individuals. The first was the then military spokesperson, Major Emmanuel Chirchir. I sat down with him, not to understand the precise reason for the intervention, but to tap into the thought process that preceded it and the exit strategy.

The meeting left me deeply worried. The useful major failed to provide coherent answers to my questions. Later, his press briefings and Twitter engagements fortified my worries. His meetings descended into a series of amateur performances. In one incident, Major Chirchir shared these photos on his Twitter handle.

Posts from Major Chirchir's Twitter account.

Posts from Major Chirchir’s Twitter account.

The Associated Press published these photos, which were later published in the Daily Mail on Dec. 15, 2009. Major Chirchir was roundly pilloried for using the report to criticise Al Shabaab. This confirmed that public information management, a critical component of any military campaign, was being done on the fly, or not taken seriously. The lack of general information and ill-thought out communications campaign remained features of the army.

The second person whose insight I sought was Bethwel Kiplagat. The late ambassador was Kenya’s envoy during the 30-months marathon Somalia peace process in Kenya from 2003 to 2005. I was keen to glean any insight he could share. Kenya had to intervene to stop Al Shabaab because they posed a security threat to Kenya, Kiplagat told me. He said the political process could not go ahead if Al Shabaab threatened the fragile government in Mogadishu.

Next, I looked for Retired General Lazarus Sumebiyo, the IGAD’s special envoy for the South Sudan Peace Process. The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better. He alluded that the invasion marked a deviation from Kenya’s policy of regional diplomacy that has served the country so well in the past.

The general told me that entering Somalia was the “dumbest thing” the government could have done; shorter, well-calibrated strikes targeting Al Shabaab, rather than a protracted ground intervention, could have done the job better.

Almost a decade into the intervention, the “dumbest thing” continues with no end in sight. Instead of defeating and destroying Al Shabaab, the campaign has ruptured relations with Ethiopia, for decades, the nation’s most significant partner in the region.

II. Botched Military Campaign

Major Chirchir’s failure to answer some of the fundamental questions spoke to a much larger problem with the intervention: the military intervention was never approved by the National Assembly as required by the Constitution. Article 95(6) of the Constitution states: “The National Assembly approves declarations of war and extensions of states of emergency.” The Somalia intervention was announced by the Minister for Internal Affairs, George Saitoti, instead of the Minister for Defence, Yusuf Haji.

As a measure of how little strategic thinking went into the military campaign, the intervention was launched in October, a rainy season in Somalia, like in other countries in the Horn and East Africa region. Immediately after the attack started, most of the mechanised units got stuck in mud.

Asymmetrical warfare

History is littered with significant and powerful armies humbled in battlefields by weaker opponents, especially in low-intensity conflicts. Fighting an unconventional militant group using a conventional method was always bound to fail in the long run. Al Shabaab has time on its side while a traditional army must go by the clock. They can outwait any traditional command, and forgetting this basic principle comes with a steep cost. But the Kenyan military seems to have learned little from their Somalia experience. The KDF has also maintained a domestic military operation against Al Shabaab in Lamu’s Boni Forest. This operation, like the operation in Somalia, has predictably stalled.

The Kenyan military’s initial media briefing was full of the bravado indicative of a short military campaign. It did not take long for assumed quick victory to recede from view; by June, less than eight months after the intervention, Kenya’s military ‘rehatted by joining the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Resigned cynicism has long replaced the early days of jingoism. The campaign has faded into background noise except for occasional media mention when the military suffers casualties. Its low priority in the collective Kenyan consciousness has insulated the leadership, including Parliament, from any form of accountability.

Although Kenya’s military intervention was during retired President Mwai Kibaki’s reign, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been an enthusiastic supporter. President Kenyatta, speaking about the intervention, said, “And in pursuance of this objective and that of the international community, our troops will continue being part of AMISOM until such time that our objective has been achieved.” However, there is little ground to suggest AMISOM, first deployed on 9 January 2007, is anywhere near achieving its goal. In military campaigns, an open-ended campaign without clear military and political goals invariably leads to mission creep.

III. Kenya and Terrorism

Kenya has been a target of international terrorist groups, but the attacks focused primarily on Western interests in Kenya because of the country’s perceived close alliance with the West. The first major terrorist attack on Kenyan soil occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1980, retribution for Kenya’s assistance to Israeli Defence Forces in Operation Entebbe. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine bombed the Norfolk Hotel, an upscale hotel frequented by foreign diplomats and in the past by the occasional head of state, such as Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Most of the twenty fatalities and nearly 100 injured were not Kenyan.

On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the United States embassy in Nairobi, killing 213 and injuring more than 4,000 people. A simultaneous attack on the United States embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killed 11 and wounded more than 100. Somalia’s connections to Al Qaeda were instrumental in planning and carrying out these attacks.

Four years later, on December 28, 2002, Al Qaeda in East Africa attacked the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli- owned hotel in Kikambala, Kenya, killing 15 and injuring 80. The same day, the group attempted but failed to bring down Arkia Airline’s flight 582 from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport to Tel Aviv.

Domestic blowback

Following Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, Al Shabaab launched an unprecedented number of attacks on Kenyan soil, with most of their attacks focused on Kenyan interests and Kenyan citizens. These attacks occurred throughout the country, forming an arc across Northern Kenya, the Kenyan coast, and Nairobi. The violent response visited upon local communities in the name of counterterrorism complicated the problem.

The region has always been susceptible to spillovers from Somalia’s internal conflicts due to the long shared borders with Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya’s ethnic Somali and other Muslim minorities experience festering contemporary disenfranchisement and historical marginalisation. The marginalisation is despite the decentralisation of power and resources in 2010 under the new constitution. Al-Shabaab took full advantage of Kenya’s vulnerabilities and porous border to tap into these grievances.

Al Shabaab also started attacking international aid workers, government officials, and military targets, while fueling tensions by specifically killing non-Muslim civilians. The most significant Al Shabaab attack to date in Kenya occurred on April 2, 2015, in Garissa County when shooters stormed Garissa University. During the attack, 147 Kenyans, mostly students, died and 79 were wounded. Five hundred people escaped the attacks, which witnesses say singled out Christians before shooting.

Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016. AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar

Kenyan Defence Forces serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) man their position at El-Adde in the southwestern Gedo region of Somalia on January 22, 2016. AMISOM Photo/ Abdisalan Omar

Inside Somalia, the KDF was not safe either. On the morning of January 15, 2016, Al Shabaab fighters attacked and overran an AMISOM forward operating base garrisoned by KDF troops from the 9th Rifle Battalion in the Battle of El Adde. By the end of the day, an estimated 141 Kenyan soldiers were dead. That figure would make the single most considerable loss for Kenya’s military since independence. Slightly over one year after the El Adde attack, on 27 January 2017, Al Shabaab took KDF’s military base briefly before being dislodged. In both incidents, the Kenyan government did not release the exact number of casualties; instead it played catch-up while disputing figures released by Al Shabaab.

Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.

IV. Police Reform and Counterterrorism

As a response to deteriorating internal security, Kenya instituted a raft of legal, policy, and administrative moves. Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), established a new Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), and launched counterterrorism operations across Eastleigh, coastal Kenya, and North- Eastern, all areas where Al Shabaab is active. These operations led to egregious human rights violations, disregard for due process of law, and resulted in extrajudicial executions and disappearances of suspected Al Shabaab members.

Several human rights organisations and the media have documented these violations. It is not just suspected Al Shabaab members who were targeted, human rights groups documenting government agencies’ violations were also targeted through legal and bureaucratic suffocation that paralysed their daily operations. This included closing their offices, taking away their computers, using Kenya Revenue Authorities to question their tax compliance, and freezing their bank accounts.

Domestic attacks spurred the government to launch a strong response. Unfortunately, the choice of action came at a critical transitional moment. After decades of human rights violations, the Kenya police were finally undergoing structural transformation buttressed by provisions in the 2010 Constitution.

However, the Kenya Police’s human rights violations documented by the media and human rights organisations within the context of counterterrorism operations are not an exception but rather a continuation of an established trajectory. The Kenya Police has a documented history of human rights violations and impunity. The Executive’s appointment of senior police leadership without oversight from the state’s arms before the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution made the Kenya Police malleable to the Executive’s demands. It conferred the impunity to intimidate political opponents.

There have been sustained efforts to reform the police in the past. The latest followed the eruption of violence following the 2007-2008 national elections. As part of the mediation process, the African Union (AU), under the auspices of a Panel of Eminent African Personalities, established a mediation team led by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.   As part of the diagnosis, the panel advocated that the government undertake security sector and other reforms to rein in the police.

As part of the mediation, the panel formed the Commission of Inquiry into Post-Election Violence (CIPEV), also known as the Waki Commission (named after the chairman of the commission, Justice Philip Waki). According to the Waki’s Commission, a total of 1,133 people died as a result of post-election violence, and gunshots accounted for 962 casualties and 405 deaths. This represented 35.7% of the fatalities, making gunshot the single most frequent cause of deaths during the post-election violence.

The Waki Commission recommended that “the Parties shall initiate urgent and comprehensive reform of the Kenya Police and the Administration Police. A panel of policing experts shall undertake such reforms”.

President Mwai Kibaki, in May 2009, established the National Task Force on Police Reform, also known as the Ransley Task Force (named after the chair of the commission, Justice Philip Ransley).

Chapter 14 of the 2010 Constitution further codified police reforms. The reforms sought to create a “visible” change to the police leadership in three ways. The law established: (1) the position of Inspector General of the Police (IGP) who is appointed by the President with Parliament’s approval; (2) a civilian oversight mechanism through the Independent Policing Authority (IPOA) and National Police Service Commission (NPSC); and, (3) bring the administration police and the regular police under a single IGP and two separate Deputy IGPs – the latter designed to enhance a clear line of command, control, and communications.

Collectively, these changes meant greater independence of the police from the Executive. But the invasion and the insurgents’ response to it created an environment that was not conducive for implementing the reforms. The need for a robust domestic response against Al Shabaab’s attacks on Kenyan soil saw the Kenya Police commit multiple human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions during counterterrorism operations in Muslim majority regions inside Kenya. The Police resorted to the tried and tested collective responsibility and intimidation methods in the form of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.

These violations were enabled via the loosening of legal safeguards against police violations. The upshot of the Kenyan police’s human rights violations was not only derailing the police reforms but was also providing Al Shabaab with propaganda material that they used to recruit further.

Those supporting the police’s response advance three main arguments.

One, terrorism is an extraordinary crime, and thus requires an exceptional response. This argument privileges security over liberty, creating a false, if not simplistic, choice. While not perfect, the Prevention of Terrorism Act provides a legal framework within which to fight terrorism. Additionally, there is no empirical evidence that policing that violates human rights leads to a decline in crime. On the contrary, it engenders distrust in the police among the affected community, thus making policing more difficult.

The second argument is the “a few rotten apples” theory – that there are only a few police officers committing human rights violations. The problem with this argument is that even if a few police officers engage in human rights violations, it is still too many. According to an online portal that tracks police violations by human rights groups, since 2007, Kenya Police have killed 689 people. These are figures that human rights groups have verified since the police do not keep the data. These figures could be higher because some cases go unreported.

Such statistics only provide a glimpse, and while helpful in understanding the depth of the crisis, miss the human element. Those who disproportionately bear the brunt of the police’s violations are young men living in slums in Kenya’s major urban areas.

The third defence is that whenever accused of violating human rights, the police ask, “Don’t the police also have human rights? Why don’t the human rights groups advocate for the police’s human rights as well?” This is a valid argument; however, the two issues are not mutually exclusive. One can advocate for police’s human rights while simultaneously asking for police’s accountability.

V. From Counterterrorism to Countering Violence Extremism

The police’s human rights violations are part of the reason behind the move away from counterterrorism to broader policies for countering violent extremism (CVE). CVE is anchored in a global shift in counterterrorism.

Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.

Hence, Kenya and other countries pivot to CVE away from counterterrorism. This is in line with the global shift in the discourse regarding the utility of counterterrorism as a tool for fighting the rising tide of domestic terrorism, displacing the conventional focus on threats emanating from far-off countries. CVE is one such trend that has grown into a cottage industry that has generated new CVE “experts” overnight.

Policy trends in the West have a way of becoming mainstream and fashionable elsewhere because Western countries provide much of the funding to support research for policies that then end up being tested in a local setting like Kenya. Even when these policies are discredited in Western countries where they originate, they end up being adopted and accepted uncritically in the Global South.

While CVE initially emerged as a response to counterproductive consequences of counterterrorism, it has morphed into a banality hollowed out of its utility, meaning, and potency in time.

The remarkable aspect of CVE’s “trendiness” is that the diagnoses are hardly original, but rather, repackage a laundry list of solutions, some of which are borrowed from Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR). One of the overarching aspects of the CVE is the Danish or the Aarhus Model.

The Danish Model

Prevention of terrorism became a top item in Denmark’s political agenda in 2005 in the wake of the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, the train bomb attacks in Madrid in 2004, and the bomb attacks in London in 2005. This, combined with the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten’s printing of twelve cartoons of Prophet Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, lit a fuse.

Kwale, Lamu and Mombasa counties’ CVE plans were heavily borrowed from the Danish Aarhus Model, named after the Aarhus region. The model was developed when in 2009, the Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs was given European Union approval for a three-year pilot project on de-radicalisation. The project was launched in cooperation with the municipalities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, East Jutland Police District, and the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET).

The model also works at three levels: a) General – this level is principally about raising awareness through public information programmes; b) Specific – this level involves those who have been identified as individuals or groups who are planning to travel to join extremist groups; and c) Targeted – this intervention is designed for individuals and groups who are considered “imminent risk”. Activities at this level involve exit and mentoring programmes.

Further, the Danish CVE plan is a multi-agency affair involving the Danish Security and Intelligence Service Centre for Prevention, Ministry of Immigration, Integration, and Housing, and the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration. The Danish approach draws on decades of experience with similar collaboration with other areas and benefits from existing structures and initiatives developed for other purposes than specifically preventing extremism and radicalisation.

However, adopting the model wholesale without considering the local peculiarities of Kenya misses the point that what works for Denmark does not necessarily work for Lamu, Kwale, and Mombasa. The biggest challenge in adopting the model in Kenya is that there is no national legal-policy framework regarding disengagement and reintegration of returnees, a third element of the Aarhus model.

VI. Amnesty for Al Shabaab

Following the Al-Shabaab attacks on Garissa University in which 147 people died, Kenya’s Interior Cabinet Secretary, Joseph Nkaissery, declared an amnesty for members of the group aiming to return to Kenya. According to Nkaissery, the amnesty was to “encourage those disillusioned with the group that wanted to come back“.

Under the amnesty, the returnees would receive protection, as well as rehabilitation and counseling. The programme claimed that it would support training and alternative livelihood methods through work with different governmental ministries.

In 2015, the amnesty was announced initially for an initial ten-day period. It was later extended by two weeks. In May 2015, the government stated that 85 youths had so far surrendered under the amnesty programme and that “the government had put an elaborate comprehensive integration programme to absorb those who had surrendered. A year and a half later, in October 2016, the government made the amnesty indefinite.

Reports claim that anywhere from 700 to 1,000 fighters have returned from Somalia, but the amnesty has not had any impact in terms of rehabilitation, and that these alleged programmes were non-existent. Consequently, the counties have increased their involvement (an approrpiate development), as the state response has been inadequate, and left mainly to civil society, but without government support. The mistrust of returnees from within the communities is an equally significant problem, along with livelihood issues.

Sound diagnosis

Because of the diversity of the stakeholders involved and consulted, the county CVE plans provide a sound analysis of what predisposes young men and women to radicalisation and eventually joining violent extremist groups. The fact that discussions regarding the development of CVE plans were spearheaded by local civil society organisations also enhanced taking on board nuanced local realities. This also engendered legitimacy and trust from the communities.

The two aspects that have not been fully fleshed out in most of the plans are, first, the source of money in implementing the policies (for instance, the Mombasa County Action Plan budgeted for KSh430,223,000 for January- December 2018). However, the available funds were Sh128,000,600, or only 29.77 per cent of the allocation. Second, the importance of women, while mentioned, has not been addressed in detail.

Fighting violent extremism is an extremely challenging undertaking, but uncritically exporting solutions without customising them for local realities does not help. Besides, in the UK and the US, CVE has been discredited because it was primarily used as a surveillance tool on communities on an industrial scale.

VII. Geopolitics of the Horn of Africa

Besides failing to keep Kenyans safe and rendering police reform stillborn, Kenya’s intervention in Somalia damaged the country’s regional diplomatic clout and leverage, especially with Ethiopia, a key ally in the Horn of Africa. The Kenyatta government’s management of relations with Somalia has been even more problematic.

Despite being in a region bedeviled with constant conflict due to Cold War proxy relationships, Kenya remained unscathed by the Cold War’s vagaries. This enduring legacy survived despite the fact that Kenya, effectively an ally of the US, is surrounded by Ethiopia and Somalia, who were clients of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) and Cuba at different times.

Kenya’s president, Daniel Arap Moi, aware of the challenges of being sucked into any conflict, firewalled Kenya from being mired in regional conflicts by remaining ideologically ambivalent, at least in public. Kenya remained neither a friend nor a foe of any of these countries. Moi was making a virtue out of necessity considering his tenuous hold on power domestically.

Moi instead made Kenya a site for peace negotiations amongst warring groups in the region. Kenya was the venue for peace negotiations between the warring parties in South Sudan and Somalia. The Nairobi Agreement, a peace deal between the Ugandan government of Tito Okello and the National Resistance Army (NRA), a rebel group led by Yoweri Museveni, was signed in Nairobi in December 1985. Kenya carried the culture of hosting peace talks even after the end of the Cold War. The Sudan and South Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in Kenya.

Moi also appointed competent foreign affairs ministers, such as Dr. Robert Ouko, Dr. Bonaya Godana, and Dr. Zachary Onyoka, just to mention a few. Post-Moi, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not distinguished itself in conducting Kenya’s diplomacy.

Somalia

The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia was formed in 2004 in Nairobi after many months of negotiations. The TFG was the 14th attempt at creating a functioning government in Somalia since the collapse of Muhammad Siad Barre’s government in 1991. Formed late in 2004, the TFG governed from Kenya until June 2005. The late Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat led the negotiations.

Despite the Kenyan government’s treatment of Kenyan Somalis as a second-class citizens, bilateral relations between Kenya and Somalia were warm and cordial. Currently, relations between Kenya and Somalia are arguably the lowest in decades.

At the heart of the Kenya-Ethiopia-Somalia dispute is the question of who will control the semi-autonomous region of Jubaland. The central player in that dispute is Mohamed Madobe, the President of Jubaland. His militia, the Ras Kamboni Brigade, fought alongside the Kenya Defence Forces when Kenya intervened in Somalia.

Kenyan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inspect a destroyed vehicle belonging to Al Qaeda-affliated extremist group Al Shabaab at Kismayo Airport in southern Somalia, 22 August, 2013. AU-UN IST Photo / Ramadaan Mohamed.

Kenyan soldiers serving with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inspect a destroyed vehicle belonging to Al Qaeda-affliated extremist group Al Shabaab at Kismayo Airport in southern Somalia, 22 August, 2013. AU-UN IST Photo / Ramadaan Mohamed.

When Kenya first intervened in Somalia in 2011, Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia since intervening unilaterally in 2006 to stop the ascent of the Union of Islamic Courts. But Kenya’s intervention was in Jubaland, a region predominantly occupied by the Ogaden, who have been fighting the Ethiopian government for decades in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. There was no way Ethiopia could countenance that happening without them having a say. Besides, being Somalia’s breadbasket, the port of Kismaayo is also in Jubaland.

Since the collapse of Siad Barre in 1991, Ethiopia and Kenya maintained a united policy. But Kenya’s intervention changed that. While both countries are in Somalia with the primary purpose of defeating Al Shabaab, they are both now pursuing a different route. Ahmed Abiy’s coming to power in April 2018 gave this a further ascent. Until that point, Ethiopia principally supported the semi-autonomous regions under the guise of decentralisation. To many Somalis, Ethiopia was not interested in the emergence of a central government in Somalia. Since Abiy became the Prime Minister, Addis and Mogadishu have grown closer, shifting decades-long Ethiopia policy, and leaving Kenya and Ethiopia at loggerheads.

These differences were on full display during the Jubaland presidential election when Kenya supported Madobe, and Mogadishu and Ethiopia supported the opposition candidate. The Kenya-Ethiopia’s dispute continues to stymie AMISOM operations. The only actor benefiting from such open hostility is Al Shabaab.

The maritime dispute

For decades, Somalia regarded Kenya as a neutral arbiter, unlike Ethiopia, where long-standing resentments against Somalia have endured. Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia and its meddling in the country’s internal affairs have ruined Kenya-Somalia relations.

The150,000 sq.km maritime dispute with Somalia exacerbated the conflict. The disagreement, which came to the surface in 2004, could have been resolved amicably had officials at the Kenya International Boundaries Office (KIBO) taken the negotiations seriously. During the negotiations, Kenyan officials regarded their Somalia counterparts with disrespect, assuming that as a “failed state”, Somalia cannot negotiate on an equal footing. Kenyan officials also failed to show up for a meeting with Somalia without explanation. The case eventually ended up at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Instead of correcting earlier mistakes, Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs officers dug in their heels. It started engaging in reactionary moves like denying Somali diplomats entry visas and reintroducing flight stopovers in Wajir, thus substituting petulance for diplomacy.

VIII. The political settlement with Al Shabaab

Since 2011, Al Shabaab has been dislodged from many of its territorial strongholds, thanks to the 22,000-strong AMISOM troops and the Somali National Army. Yet Al Shabaab continues to control parts of south-central Somalia. Under President Donald Trump, the United States has also significantly increased drone attacks.

More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over. If Al Shabaab continues to pose security threats inside and outside Somalia despite these investments, what will that mean after AMISOM leaves Somalia?

One of the significant and fatal gaps in addressing the Somalia crisis is the singular and disproportionate focus of using the terrorism lens. “We do not negotiate with terrorists” became the overarching slogan, becoming almost an article of faith, foreclosing any model of thinking, planning, and programming to address the crisis in Somalia.

Expanding the focus of analysis and therefore suggesting potential solutions to include other models would help to negotiate a post-AMISOM reality. That should be helpful even if AMISOM stays in Somalia because there cannot be a never-ending mission. It must have an end date.

More significant is the fact that, according to AMISOM’s Transition Plan, AMISOM will be winding down in Somalia in December 2021. The departure is despite a lack of demonstrable improvement in the Somalia National Army’s capacity to take over.

Conflicts end either through total defeat, a stalemate, or a negotiated political settlement. In Somalia’s case, the complete collapse of Al Shabaab is highly unlikely. The group has developed a sophisticated mechanism of continuing to generate revenue, including taxation and recruitment, and continues to operate as an urban/rural guerrilla outfit capable of launching violent attacks with lethal outcomes. As a result, Somalia and Al Shabaab are engaged in a “mutually destructive stalemate”.

Kenya negotiated the Somalia process that eventually led to the Transitional National Government’s formation, the first government formed since the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991. It took several attempts of delicate negotiations. Kenya also played a significant role in resolving decades of civil conflict in Sudan that led to the formation of South Sudan. While negotiating with Al Shabaab is entirely different from the Sudan and Somalia negotiations, quite frankly, the only reasonable way of ending the present crisis is by a political settlement leading to Al Shabaab being part of the future Somalia government.

Some senior Al Shabaab figures would consider negotiating with the TFG if offered positions, while others would want to have their names removed from the UN and US terror lists. Still others, eager to rejoin society, seek general amnesty, and many would like to be resettled in a third country. All these incentives are a price not too high for peace in a country shattered by a civil war since 1991.

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Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa.

Long Reads

Kenya’s Elusive Digital Driving Licenses: Who Pays and Who Profits

Leaked documents from Belgian biometrics company point to inflated pricing and political influence in license contracts.

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Kenya’s Elusive Digital Driving Licenses: Who Pays and Who Profits
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Boniface Gikunda struggled to pay his bills even more than usual under Kenya’s COVID-19 restrictions. Some days, the professional driver went without a single customer call from the three driving app services that dominate Nairobi: Uber, Taxify, and Little Cab.

But what weighed heaviest on his mind was a government mandate that required him to get a new driving license by July 1. The digital license costs 3,000 Kenyan shillings (around US$30), double the previous fee and, according to this investigation, potentially double the cost of production.

“Three thousand shillings for a Kenyan like me?” Gikunda asked rhetorically. “It’s just ridiculous for a normal driver.”

He estimates that in ordinary times, after covering the fees he pays to the driving apps and the car’s owner, plus expenses like fuel and parking, he takes home roughly KSh 500 to 800 a day. The cost of the new license could cover a week of food for him, his wife, and their son, who live in a small one-bedroom home on the outskirts of Nairobi. In his native Meru County, near Mount Kenya, the fee could cover three months of rent.

“We survive by the grace of God,” Gikunda told reporters.

To afford the license, he said he is considering borrowing money from Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB), despite its personal loan interest rate of 13 percent. “At that point,” he said, “you’re desperate.”

A draft agreement between Semlex and the government includes a requirement to make conversion to digital driving licenses mandatory. Credit: OCCRP

A draft agreement between Semlex and the government includes a requirement to make conversion to digital driving licenses mandatory. Credit: OCCRP

Gikunda didn’t know that part of the money for his license fee is also likely going to KCB. Last year, the bank bought the National Bank of Kenya (NBK), which unexpectedly won the latest government tender to produce digital driving licenses.

The Kenyan government has been attempting to roll out the new licence for over a decade. A similar tender was previously awarded to Semlex Group, a Belgian biometric solutions firm, in 2008. That contract fell apart due to political wrangling.

Semlex Group’s central office in Brussels’ wealthy Uccle district. Credit: OCCRP

Semlex Group’s central office in Brussels’ wealthy Uccle district. Credit: OCCRP

A trove of leaked Semlex emails and documents analysed by Africa Uncensored, The Elephant, and OCCRP shed light on the politicised procurement process behind the digital driving license tender. The documents reveal how the individuals involved in the contract planned to personally make millions of dollars — including Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan, his Kenyan broker Mujtaba Jaffer, and unidentified consultants — at the expense of ordinary Kenyans. Moreover, internal deliberations regarding production costs and profits indicate the price of the current digital driving license may be significantly inflated.

Reporters did not find evidence of illegal activity.

The Brokers

Semlex Group was no stranger to Africa when it set its sights on Kenya.

Semlex’s partners managed to get a two-week extension from the Ministry of Transport, giving the company time to apply. “Just shows how personal contact can make this happen,” wrote an employee of Datacard, a U.S.-company now called Entrust Datacard. A spokesperson for the company told OCCRP that the individual involved is no longer with the company, which “strives to act with integrity in everything we do.” Credit: OCCRP

Semlex’s partners managed to get a two-week extension from the Ministry of Transport, giving the company time to apply. “Just shows how personal contact can make this happen,” wrote an employee of Datacard, a U.S.-company now called Entrust Datacard. A spokesperson for the company told OCCRP that the individual involved is no longer with the company, which “strives to act with integrity in everything we do.” Credit: OCCRP

The Belgium-based company had already won tenders to provide biometric products in the Comoros Islands, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar, by making friends in high places. So, when it came to bidding for the contract to produce Kenya’s new digital driving licenses in 2008, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan made sure he had his local brokers in place from the start.

Semlex and local partner CompuLynx were issued a letter of intent by the Ministry of Transport in December 2008. “Successful news today! We were ranked ahead in the technical valuation categories and came in lower on cost,” M'Mbijjewe wrote in an email to the partners a day before MOT issued the official letter. “A good way to begin Christmas,” she added. Credit: OCCRP

Semlex and local partner CompuLynx were issued a letter of intent by the Ministry of Transport in December 2008. “Successful news today! We were ranked ahead in the technical valuation categories and came in lower on cost,” M’Mbijjewe wrote in an email to the partners a day before MOT issued the official letter. “A good way to begin Christmas,” she added.
Credit: OCCRP

One of them was Sheila M’Mbijjewe, then a Central Bank of Kenya committee official and now the state bank’s deputy governor. At the same time she was also a director in two obscure Kenyan companies owned by the powerful Mombasa-based tycoon, Mohamed Jaffer, and his son Mujtaba Jaffer.

M’Mbijjewe was an effective fixer and coordinator, who appeared to work through unnamed connections in the Ministry of Transport to ensure that the ministry’s driving license tender was awarded to Semlex. Then Mujtaba Jaffer took a leading role as the broker between Kenyan officials and the Belgian company, emails indicate.

In addition to M’Mbijjewe, other Kenyan brokers involved in the tender were also directors in the Jaffers’ nominee companies, Computer Source Point Ltd. and Infocard Africa Ltd:

  • Brown Ondego, who was previously the head of Kenya Ports Authority and at the time executive chairman of the controversial Rift Valley Railways consortium. He is listed as a director of two other Jaffer companies, Grain Bulk Handlers Limited and African Gas and Oil Ltd.
  • Kung’u Gatabaki, a corporate director who appears on the board of over a dozen companies owned by the late politician Njenga Karume. Soon after the Semlex tender he became chairman of the powerful Capital Markets Authority. Gatabaki is still listed as marketing director at Grain Bulk Handlers Limited, though he told reporters he is retired and keeping a low profile.
  • Sailesh Savani, the CEO of CompuLynx, Semlex’s technical partner on the tender. Savani was also on the board of the supermarket chain Nakumatt as well as the Kenya Bureau of Standards technical committee.

M’Mbijjewe, Ondego, Gatabaki and Savani did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mujtaba Jaffer said Computer Source Point and Infocard Africa are no longer active.

Njenga Karume’s book details how he built his business empire while serving in public office. The businesses span the hospitality, real estate, land, and agriculture industries and, at the time of his death in 2012, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The former minister and member of parliament was part of the inner circle of every Kenyan president since the country’s independence. Credit: OCCRP

Njenga Karume’s book details how he built his business empire while serving in public office. The businesses span the hospitality, real estate, land, and agriculture industries and, at the time of his death in 2012, were worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The former minister and member of parliament was part of the inner circle of every Kenyan president since the country’s independence. Credit: OCCRP

In one email, Jaffer  — who regularly referred to the Semlex CEO as “brother” — referenced a late-night meeting with the Minister of Transport. In another, he gave Njenga Karume, one of Kenya’s longest-serving and most influential former MPs, his “blessing” to make decisions on his behalf about the contract.

Jaffer told Africa Uncensored that the powerful politician was “an acquaintance of the family,” and denied any improper influence in the procurement process.

“I cannot recall every meeting as some time has elapsed since these events but I can confirm that any meeting with state officials would have centred around technical consultations,” he wrote in an email.

All of the communications between the Kenyan brokers and the Belgian firm went through Grain Bulk Handlers Limited, the Jaffers’ flagship company known for its decades-long monopoly over Kenya’s bulk grain imports, allegedly with the assistance of friendly politicians. Another family company, African Gas and Oil Ltd. (AGOL), reportedly handles and stores three-quarters of the country’s Light Petroleum Gas imports.

Jaffer said the media’s characterization of his family as political financiers who benefit from lucrative government contracts in return is unfair. “We have not openly come out backing any political party or candidate. On the contrary our business concerns have been vital to the Kenyan economy and the ordinary mwananchi [citizen],” he wrote in an email.

Diplomat East Africa magazine ran a special report on Grain Bulk Handlers Ltd. celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary in 2010. The issue included a transcript of a speech by Mohamed Jaffer made at “a glittering event” reportedly attended by then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and industry leaders. In the opening of his speech, Jaffer singled out two guests by name: Odinga and “my dear friend the Hon. Njenga Karume.” Credit: Diplomat East Africa

Diplomat East Africa magazine ran a special report on Grain Bulk Handlers Ltd. celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary in 2010. The issue included a transcript of a speech by Mohamed Jaffer made at “a glittering event” reportedly attended by then-Prime Minister Raila Odinga, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, and industry leaders. In the opening of his speech, Jaffer singled out two guests by name: Odinga and “my dear friend the Hon. Njenga Karume.”
Credit: Diplomat East Africa

With Grain Bulk’s guidance, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan sent letters to Kenyan officials complaining of delays. Credit: OCCRP

With Grain Bulk’s guidance, Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan sent letters to Kenyan officials complaining of delays.
Credit: OCCRP

When the Semlex driving license contract was derailed by an apparent rivalry between officials at the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance, it was Jaffer’s company that drafted a letter to then Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, for Semlex to send. At the time, the Finance Ministry, which refused to co-sign the contract, was headed by Odinga’s main political rival, the current President Uhuru Kenyatta.

This time, Semlex’s political connections weren’t enough. Internal documents show numerous attempts to force the Finance Ministry to add their signature to the contract, to no avail.

Semlex’s contract fell apart when the Ministry of Finance refused to sign

Semlex’s contract fell apart when the Ministry of Finance refused to sign


Media stories cited a mysterious dispute between the ministries of Transport and Finance. A 2010 article in Daily Nation framed the conflict as a struggle over which agency would run the lucrative contract. Credit: OCCRP

Media stories cited a mysterious dispute between the ministries of Transport and Finance. A 2010 article in Daily Nation framed the conflict as a struggle over which agency would run the lucrative contract. Credit: OCCRP

The Semlex consortium sued the Ministry of Transport for breach of contract in 2012, but the government argued that the contract was never finalised.

That year, the responsibility for issuing driving licenses was handed over to the newly-formed National Transport and Safety Authority. Kenyatta was elected president in 2013, and the tender was relisted through NTSA the following year.

The Breakdown

Leaked internal documents reveal the gap between what the biometrics company and its brokers expected to earn, well above the KSh 2.8 billion ($35 million) awarded by the government.

Documents show the company expected to produce 2.5 to 3 million digital driving licenses over five years, at a 15 percent profit. This means the cost of production for each driving license, profits included, would amount to $11-14 — less than half the fee being charged to drivers like Gikunda today.

Screenshot of an internal Semlex document in preparation for the bid. Credit: OCCRP

Screenshot of an internal Semlex document in preparation for the bid.
Credit: OCCRP

Despite this breakdown, a draft agreement between Semlex and the Ministry of Transport states the company actually expected to collect $20 for each card. With 2.5 to 3 million licenses issued, Semlex would have collected $50-60 million.

The same agreement states that Semlex would reimburse the government anything above $20 per card. With today’s licence fee — the Ministry of Transport would have collected $25-30 million from the arrangement.

But an internal profit-sharing agreement drafted in January 2009 revealed even higher expectations. It stated that the “actual costs” of the project would not exceed $17 million, and earmarked an additional $4.4 million for unnamed “consultants.” According to the agreement, Semlex CEO Karaziwan and Grain Bulk CEO Jaffer would split the remaining profit which, from the government award alone, would amount to $6.8 million each. The agreement stipulated that they would also split “any additional bonuses.”

A draft profit-sharing agreement indicated that “actual costs” would be kept to $17 million. Credit: OCCRP

A draft profit-sharing agreement indicated that “actual costs” would be kept to $17 million. Credit: OCCRP

The unexplained consultant fee is so substantial that a transparency expert who reviewed the terms of the deal, but requested not to be named, said it could have “no conceivable” legitimate justification.

Semlex did not respond to requests for comment, and Jaffer denied that the payment was allocated for kickbacks. He declined to provide an explanation, however, saying he was “bound by confidentiality not to discuss certain matters.”

A draft profit-sharing agreement listed $4.4 million to be paid to unidentified consultants upon demand. Credit: OCCRP

A draft profit-sharing agreement listed $4.4 million to be paid to unidentified consultants upon demand. Credit: OCCRP

“Companies like Semlex that have been implicated in corruption around Africa work in deniable ways, through consultancy fees that cannot be explained and the like,” said Alvin Mosioma, head of Tax Justice Network Africa.

“The narrative of corruption reduces actions to individuals but the reality is that the entire government policy machinery has been captured by corrupt elites in collusion with private entities who see the public purse as the most lucrative avenue to loot and plunder. In Kenya, the network of corruptivity revolves around these ‘tenderprenuers’,” Mosioma added.

The New Players

The selection of the National Bank of Kenya as the winner of the NTSA’s re-listed digital driving licence tender in 2015 was unexpected, especially when its competitors included international biometric giants.

Even before the NTSA announced the winner, the bank’s selection as a finalist was challenged on the basis that it was both the bidder and its own financial guarantor, in potential violation of Kenya’s procurement regulations. The Commercial Bank of Africa — co-owned by President Kenyatta and his family — stepped in to guarantee the NBK bid and secure its contract.

Image of a court document identifying the tender finalists’ scores. Credit: OCCRP

Image of a court document identifying the tender finalists’ scores. Credit: OCCRP

There were questions about the bank’s qualifications to produce biometric documents, as well as its reputation. NBK was infamous for using taxpayer money to make up for unpaid loans handed out under shady circumstances. Regulators also cited the bank’s board members and senior managers for allegedly misrepresenting financial statements and embezzling funds.

NBK’s technical partner — a little-known startup called Pesa Print Ltd. — also had no experience in producing biometric documents. The company was started by two obscure Kenyan firms: EyeSeeYou Communications and Kenya Twelve Ventures.

Two individuals who appeared on EyeSeeYou registration documents had also worked for Njenga Karume, the late politician who appeared in the Semlex deal. According to the founders, EyeSeeYou and Pesa Print parted ways around the time of the driving license contract was won. The owner of both Kenya Twelve Ventures and Pesa Print, David Njane Ruiyi, said the contract was won competitively.

The finalists that NBK had beat out included the previous winner Semlex, French biometrics company Gemalto S.A., and the established Kenyan ICT provider Symphony Technologies, which lost to NBK by less than one percent.

Njane, Pesa Print’s co-owner, told Africa Uncensored that NBK’s qualifications came from the entire consortium, which included two European companies with technical expertise: X Infotech, headquartered in Latvia, and Austria Card, based in Vienna. Both companies cited Pesa Print as the primary contractor in the consortium.

Presa Print’s current office in Nairobi today. Credit: John-Allan Namu

Pesa Print’s current office in Nairobi today. Credit: John-Allan Namu

When NBK’s competitor, Symphony Technologies, launched a legal complaint against the government’s selection of the winner in the driving license tender, Pesa Print paid the company KSh104.5 million (about $1 million) to drop the challenge.

According to court documents, Pesa Print borrowed part of that money from companies reportedly owned by Meru County Senator Franklin Linturi. The senator reportedly borrowed the money from a bank patronized by his girlfriend, Marianne Kitany, who at the time was chief of staff to Deputy President William Ruto.

Pesa Print, the court documents said, was due to repay the loan within 48 hours of NBK receiving the first tender payment from the government. But things got messy and ended up in arbitration, where the documents were produced describing the payoff arrangement.

Symphony ceded the contentious contract to NBK. “We agreed to drop the case as a settlement was agreed and for public good (to avoid vendor issues that cause many government project delays and lengthy court processes),” Symphony told reporters in an emailed statement.

Pesa Print confirmed the payment, and said the financial arrangement with Linturi was purely transactional. The senator could not be reached for comment.

KCB Group featured Pesa Print and its COO Mark Maina in a May 2020 issue of The Venture magazine. According to the article, Pesa Print had set up a technology hub within the NTSA and was producing electronic driving license cards that “will eventually be used for payments, such as instant fines.” NBK was described as Pesa Print’s banking partner. Credit: KCB Group’s The Venture magazine

KCB Group featured Pesa Print and its COO Mark Maina in a May 2020 issue of The Venture magazine. According to the article, Pesa Print had set up a technology hub within the NTSA and was producing electronic driving license cards that “will eventually be used for payments, such as instant fines.” NBK was described as Pesa Print’s banking partner. Credit: KCB Group’s The Venture magazine

According to Njane, Pesa Print has already delivered the technology and base printed cards to the NTSA. However, one party in the consortium told reporters that card production had stalled even before government agencies shut down during COVID, and that the company was shopping around for new technical partners.

NBK did not respond to questions, but its parent company KCB Group told reporters in an emailed statement that “NBK, as the contracting party is executing its obligations and the covenants of the NTSA driving license contract as required.”

It’s unclear when the long, storied journey of Kenya’s digital driving license will be fulfilled. With the terms of the current KSh2.1 billion contract a secret, it’s also unclear exactly how much the government and the companies — as well as any politically connected brokers — stand to earn.

Meanwhile drivers like Gikunda will pay the price.

“I don’t know why the government had to come [up] with such a figure,” said Gikunda, lamenting the KSh 3000 cost of the digital license. “I don’t know what’s so special about the card.”

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Long Reads

Out of America or How I became a Marxist

Becoming a Marxist made me realise that there was a wider context for my existence, that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical.

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I went to study in the United States in the 1980s in the time of what was to me the inexplicable presidency of Ronald Reagan. It was an enigmatic presidency for me for two reasons. First, at my university and amongst the mostly left-leaning circles that I hang out with, I never came across anybody who had voted for him. The second reason was that, for me, Reagan was clearly challenged on the intellectual front. I could not believe that a nation with all that maendeleo, all that development we in Africa so covet, would tolerate some folksy guy who might have come from a darker and more ignorant century. Certainly, the cool left-leaning students at C University had no time for Reagan.

In my two years in the US the only person I came across who would publicly admit to having voted for Reagan was a 65-year-old black man in Albany, Georgia, my cousin’s father-in-law. Pops, as his children called him in that quintessential African American manner, would routinely loudly proclaim his love for President Reagan to people in the presence of his children. He showed me his Republican Party membership card, much to the mortification of his children who muttered that the old man was finally going senile. When he whipped out the letter from Reagan, they teased him saying that he had only received it because he was special, being the only black Republican on the planet.

Pops challenged two beliefs I had had held about voting patterns in America. First, that black people were not members of the Republican Party and, second, that they always voted for the Democratic Party.

War and America’s presidents

Eight months into America, I had imbibed the paranoid conspiracy theories of my Marxist circle and lost my African ease. Late one night I turned on the television to find President Reagan ranting and raving in the most alarming manner about the “evil empire”. He was referring to the former Soviet Union, America’s mortal enemy of the Cold War days. And you thought “Axis of evil” was original? Do you see a pattern here? This is clearly the language of America’s dumb dumb presidents.

There is a moment in the deep night when reality becomes suspended and we become susceptible to our original lurking primeval selves. In this night moment, assorted distorted demons and night creatures with names like Linani, banshees, ghosts and ghouls rule as reality twists and turns, changing shape and resonance. The howl of a dog conjures up a werewolf. On the Kenyan coast, that night moment brings with it all manner of djins and mermaids, prowling in their woman-shape to steal the souls of victim men. Mating cats evoke the screams of damned souls burning in a Christian hell. It is easy to believe the bizarre. (I am setting up my excuse for what happened next.)

It was at such a moment in the night that I found Reagan’s ranting so aggressive that as I listened I became convinced that I had only missed the first part of his speech, in which he had finally gone over the edge and declared war on the Soviet Union. That night I went to bed terrified, in the grip of my imaginary world war. Before I fell into erratic sleep, I obsessed about how I would not be able to get out of the US before the actual war started and that I would die alone in a foreign land. The next morning I was relieved and abashed to find that all was normal and there was no sign of impeding war.

Twenty years later, as I watched the elections that brought another dumb dumb, unfathomable US president to power, George W. Bush, I realised that my vantage point, with its emphasis on linear “development” or maendeleo, had warped my thinking. Until that instant, I had thought development also brings with it highly enlightened people who would not lie about the presence of weapons of mass destruction to bring pain and destruction to innocent women and children many miles away in another country. For what? For oil (I can’t believe that), to get revenge for daddy (that’s too weird), to get their way (what way, the American way in Baghdad?), to be right about a perspective? (Probably the only right answer, outrageous as it may seem).

For us in this part of the world, things like technological advancement, elimination of hunger, industrial development, foreign vacations, microwaves, one doctor per 100 people, four-lane highways, $30,000 per capita income, a new car every two years, pensions, social security, all of which come with development, also lead to progress, to maendeleo. And ultimately to enlightment, the cherry on top of the development cake. We think, surely in America or Europe there must be such enlightenment that people, ordinary people everywhere, must have become immune to the baser human urgings like fear, malice, jealousy, racism, intolerance, corruption, violence, the need to declare war for dubious reasons, religious fanaticism?

It is easy to believe that if we were to invent a machine that would test our level of enlightenment we would find that those with more development have more enlightenment. This would render them immune from making decisions driven by those unenlightened aspects of being human like uncertainty and fear of tomorrow, fear of the other, the dictates of their religion, what the Bible says, what the Koran says, what the mullahs say, what the priest says. But finally I understand that this is not the case; just because you have more stuff doesn’t mean you are more enlightened.

I now realise of course that although human beings may have made huge technological advances such that they can send men to the moon or invent the Internet, they will still rely on some form of magic, juju or alchemy to manage their lives. The advances have not created certainty. In fact, they create even more uncertainty which can drive people deeper into the bosom of their juju side.

From Nairobi to America

Before I went to America, I was a student of the biological sciences at the University of Nairobi. Someone had put the University of Nairobi on the then outskirts of town. But this had not been far enough. By the 1970s, the outskirts were already part of the central business district and students would make their grievances felt by literally pelting the central business district with sticks and stones. It was a rioting student’s paradise. During my time, there were numerous riots, demonstrations and campaigns, many with echoes of Marxism or some left-leaning ideology with students shouting slogans like “Down with the bourgeoisie! The proletariat rules!!!” as they battled the police in the streets.

Somehow, throughout these riots I was able to remain largely free of any ideological infection. Which is incredibly surprising because we were sent home on at least four occasions over three years because of some issue with ideological overtones. In total, we spent about seven months at home. The male students had to report to their local chief every week but the women were not perceived to be a threat so we did not have to.

The only time I was absolutely certain about what we were striking for was the time we went on strike over food. We were all tired of the strange cuisine. The final provocation came when even the minced meat had weevils in it. Weevils will infest beans, legumes, rice, maize, but none feed on meat. So I could never get it; how did the weevils get into the minced meat? We half-joked that they must have used them as seasoning.

Rioting students

It was always those unserious arts students at main campus who started the riots. With our 36 hours a week schedule, we science students had no time for such frivolous pursuits. Also, we had no ideology to spur us to action and were so out of touch with current issues that we had no idea that our politicians were up to no good and that we should care. No science lecturer was ever caught in the political crosshairs, at least not during my time.

With their 8 hours a week lecture schedule which we sneered at, the arts students had plenty of time for ideologies such as Marxism and for the political issues they cared about, and they had lecturers with a death wish to egg them on. To get us to join their strike the arts students had to use threat and force; when a strike started we would be the first target and rather than face the wrath of our fellow students we joined in. Soon we were caught up in the excitement of the moment and forgot our original reluctance.

We ran around town in our jeans and sneakers being chased by the police, stoning unsuspecting motorists in an orgy of anarchy that was surprisingly heady even when the consequences could be a beating or rape by the police and the paramilitary (at the time they did not use live ammunition) and expulsion from university. I took part in the running around town but I didn’t want to take part in the stoning of motorists in case one of those motorists was my mother or father or one of their friends.

Twenty years later, I almost became one of the nameless motorists we used to talk so casually about, the one who lost her eye, (“Oh, how sad”), the one who died (uncomfortable silence), the one whose car was set ablaze and had her leg broken when she tried to jump over a six-foot fence hotly pursued by angry students shouting “down with the bourgeoisie, workers unite!” (loud laughter at the image of the heavyset woman trying to jump a six-foot fence).

That scene from a long time ago came to me as I came face to face with a young man about to hurl a stone at my windscreen. Time stood still. I had driven into the midst of rioting university students. Have you ever had one of those moments of danger when your life hangs in the balance under the specter of deadly violence? I live in Africa so I have had several. For me these moments always come with a loud metallic screeching/whistling sound. A sound that crystallises danger itself.

Photo. Unsplash / Pawel Janiak

Photo. Unsplash / Pawel Janiak

From nowhere the moment was interrupted; a student stepped in and stopped the young man at the last possible moment, for no reason that I can fathom, except that my day had not yet come. “Drive away!” he shouted urgently at me. I reversed and drove like the devil escaping my moment.

Being cold in America

I arrived in America in the dead of winter never having experienced winter in my life. I also went to a Marxist university only having been vaguely aware of this ideology or the concept of ideologies for that matter, so I was green on many fronts. If my father had known, and then been able to believe, that he was sending me to America to a Marxist university, would he have so happily taken me to the airport with such pride, giving me one of his gems to take with me? I repeated it later to my new boyfriend, starry-eyed, in a “behold the wisdom of my father, I want to share it with you” moment, only to find that it was Confucius who originated it. You can guess the one: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. I remember laughing and not being embarrassed by the busting of my father’s “original” gem. You must understand that I had once believed that my father could speak Russian.

It was the cold that almost got me first. It was February, the dead of winter. On my sixth day there, I looked out of the window and the sun was shining off the pristine snow. I felt joyful at the prospect of warm sunshine on my skin. I dressed and walked the one kilometre to the university campus. Only I got colder and colder. Sunshine did not equal warmth here. The light coat and sweater I had put on were no defense against the bitter winter cold. Twenty minutes later I was sitting in the reception room of the University admission block, feeling sorry for myself, trying not to cry as my ears, toes and fingers painfully thawed. I would have gone back home that second if my ticket had not been one-way.

A party in America

I eventually settled in, made some friends and was soon invited to my first party. The word “party” should mean the same thing wherever you are, right? For me at that time it meant dressing up in something sexy and provocative, make-up, jewelry (I still secretly believe that it was I who introduced the whole bling concept to the US), high heels and looking forward to dancing and meeting gorgeous and dateable guys. I marvel today at how many eligible men there were to choose from back then at any party, I was always spoilt for choice.

So of course I arrive at the party Kenyan style, dressed to the nines and fashionably late, to make my entrance and to envelope myself in the “whose that girl” factor. The cachet in being remembered translated directly into the attention of at least three of the hottest guys at the party. And then the routine. Open the door of the crowded room, stop, framed by the door, hold pose as if looking for someone while what you are actually doing is allowing them to look at you, and then step into the room sure of the impression you have created.

Photo. Unsplash / Jonathan Simcoe

Photo. Unsplash / Jonathan Simcoe

I went into routine mode and nearly gagged as I realised just what an overdressed spectacle I was. One woman was still in the droopy old t-shirt that she had used when we went jogging that morning. The only difference now was that the widening sweat marks under her armpits were not because of the jogging but because of the heat in the room. I couldn’t believe it! The other students were similarly dressed in old jeans, t-shirts, sweats and ill-fitting sweaters. I was now embarrassed as all eyes turned on me just as I had intended but retreat would only have made me even more conspicuous. I held my head up and, deciding to brazen it, walked into the room. This was only the beginning of my introduction to party etiquette in America.

Did I mention that I was a geek from University of Nairobi? I soon learned a new definition of geek because a Nairobi University geek took time out to party and one of our rules was that you never talked about anything remotely related to the courses you were taking during party time. I don’t remember what we talked about but what we did at parties was dance like mad, and tune and be tuned. But here at university in the US life was one continuous seminar without end.

I joined a group of friends and my face lit up in a smile anticipating delicious banter with that cute guy I had the hots for. As I stood there awhile, I realised that I needed to quickly disappear the smile; it was clearly inappropriate during a discussion about historical materialism, Hegel, Marx, Gramsci… After 15 minutes looking for an opportunity to make an impression I gave up. I knew the language. English. But if you had held a gun to my head and asked, “Tell me what they are talking about or I shoot,” I would have had to let you shoot my brains out. I had no idea. I moved to another group of my friends and found them similarly engaged in what can only be referred to as deep intellectual discourse and again I could not understand them. My frustration was growing; you can understand what this was like for a loud and voluble person. This is my only point in mitigation for what happened next. The third group held some promise. There was a word I found familiar, and as I write what I said, my toes still curl up in embarrassment twenty years on. The word was “reactionary”. I had to seize the moment and make my intellectual mark. “Oh!” I said, “President Moi is a reactionary, he always reacts to everything.” I looked around at the upturned faces with pride at this insight.

And then I launched into a story about President Moi and his reactions, by way of illustration you understand. “One time when we were at the university, President Moi had gone to India on a state visit. By the time he returned it was a week before JM Day, the day on which a populist member of parliament called J.M. Kariuki had been assassinated 10 years before. The students always marked the day with demonstrations which soon deteriorated into riots and running battles with the police. The university was always closed after the fracas. This year though, we students had gone against the grain and decided that we would mark the day by doing good in the community. We had decided to establish a J.M. Kariuki Foundation and to clean up slum areas and donate to poor people. So when we heard the president’s declaration even before he set foot on Kenyan soil that all third-year students would be expelled and ‘the nation would feel nothing if we dared riot on this year’s J.M. Kariuki Day’, we were so outraged that we were simply provoked into action. We rioted. And funnily enough, for the first time he did not react for the first week. We then decided that we would riot until he sent us all home. So we did.”

Many years down the road, I am still grateful that they did not burst out laughing. Instead, someone politely said one word “yes, that’s an interesting perspective to the word reactionary, you are quite right President Moi is a reactionary”, and the conversation continued seamlessly.

Going home a feminist

I soon got used to the American party style, so much so that when I came back home I had a hard time adjusting to the Kenyan approach. More so because I had come back with a head full of ideologies that did not mix well with the oglefest that is the Kenyan party. I took years to get back on track, spending time at parties skulking in corners with one or two other like-minded people, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, both habits picked up in America and now used to camouflage my despair at the lack of opportunity for rigorous intellectual discourse at these Kenyan affairs.

Of all the ideologies I picked up abroad, the most incompatible with my country was my hardcore feminism. It was not just any ordinary feminism, but one that looked for converts with the fanaticism of a born-again Christian from the American Bible Belt out to capture souls in Africa. And I never missed a chance to advance my mission. I was a one-woman missionary determined to be martyred at the altar of feminism.

Photo. Unsplash / Marcus Winkler

Photo. Unsplash / Marcus Winkler

Like red flags to a bull, statements that would spur me into action were endless. “Oh you know women are like that” or “Oh you know women are their own worst enemy.” Back then my country was still so innocent that it did not know that it should hide its chauvinism from view, at least in public. There were many sexist and misogynist statements made in my hearing by men and women on a daily basis.

Just so that there would be no room for speculation, I would declare my feminism openly on introduction. It wasn’t quite, “Hi my name is Sitawa and I am a rabid feminist who is vigilant and looking for opportunities to spring into action in defense of women everywhere by lecturing you into submission for any anti-woman statement that I may detect”. But it might as well have been. How I actually introduced myself was “Hello my name is Sitawa and I am a feminist”, I said, looking them straight in the eye, daring them to make a joke of my declaration.

Just in case you might be misled into thinking that there was any irony here and maybe laugh out loud because you found the introduction funny, the clothing and demeanor completed the picture. I wore a uniform of black jeans, shapeless t-shirts and sneakers, the drab universal uniform of feminists — in the US at least. “Appreciate my mind not my behind” is what I meant to say with my whole presentation to protect myself from another little trait I had picked up in the US, an aversion for unsolicited male attention.

All my friends were innocents. After I had lectured three or four of them for half an hour each on separate occasions I soon found myself alone. I wore my aloneness like a badge of honour, seeing it as the inevitable price paid by any champion of a cause who sticks their neck out. Thank goodness I had seen the film “The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner”; I could use the image conjured by the title to console myself when I felt like giving up.

In an act of rebellion against my society, I smoked openly even in front of my father. This particular statement was especially effective in establishing my rebel credentials to no one in particular. When my friends gasped and questioned this particular act as going too far, I had another lecture prepared for them. “My aunts,” I would say from my imaginary soapbox. “Upcountry, in the rural areas, women smoke and drink so why shouldn’t I?” In the western part of Kenya women can smoke cigarettes. Some of my aunts smoke cigarettes but with the lit end inside their mouths. I have never seen a man smoke in this fashion and I don’t know why. I have one particular aunt who is hard-smoking and hard-drinking, who has always gone drinking with her husband, so I just don’t understand the sanctions levied against the so-called modern African woman, the city woman.

I have long since quit all those habits I picked up in America. I gave up picking on everybody around me because I realised that I had mistaken being constantly angry and fighting with people who did not agree with my opinion with championing a cause. Besides, it was alienating and exhausting and no one wanted to hang out with me because I was so intense. When my friends could talk to me again they told me that they had run away from me because I was just plain boring.

Impressions of the American South 

I went to visit my cousin’s in-laws in the American south in Albany, Georgia for a week and discovered I could not hear so I took to endless grinning and nodding my head. I left those people thinking I was simple in the head. But I couldn’t understand them and I soon got tired of asking them to repeat themselves so I withdrew into an African grin of protection and lost my reputation in the process. They speak English in the south so it wasn’t the language, but there was still a language barrier. The long dragged out words that go on seemingly forever lost my short attention span. I found that my mind had wondered before the end so I never heard the finish. “Caaaahhhn aaaaah speeeek to Eyyyyd Coooook” is what I thought I overheard a woman in a bank asking. It was shocking to hear, like somebody caricaturing an American. I tried not to laugh and asked my cousin-in-law what the woman was saying. And she translated, “Can I speak to Ed Cook?”

I visited my first flea market during that visit to the south. A large African-like market selling what we call mitumba in Kenya; old clothes and shoes, kitchenware, furniture, as well as more specialised things like vintage clothing (read very old mitumba) and stuff that was ordinary people’s artistic expressions of themselves. My cousin-in-law introduced me to a little old black woman at a stall selling miscellaneous mitumba as her cousin from Africa.

“What!” proclaimed the little old black woman, “But you real pretty, I thought Africans were dark black with kinky hair and big fat noses and mouths but you real fine,” she declared in amazement.

I was equally astonished at the casual black-on-black racist stereotype that she spewed, blithely unaware that she should hide it or at least not say it straight to my face. But she was simply the first of many to air such views. During my two-week sojourn in the south, I soon grew accustomed to hearing from black people similar guileless declarations about some African stereotype that I didn’t fit. From questions about where I learnt to dance like that (I can dance!), to where I had learnt to speak “so proper”, to my dress sense and on and on.

Virtual segregation in the American South

The other big thing that I experienced for the first time in the US was hardwired virtual segregation. There were no signs designating white and black zones anywhere in Albany that I saw. Indeed, on the surface all seemed well in terms of race relations. But even my cousin’s Republican father-in-law made sure he hid his de-segregated business to keep up appearances. He was in business with a white person because the partnership allowed him to get white business. But to keep that lucrative white business he had to keep his partnership hidden and so he passed himself off as a worker in the business. I realise the logic is challenging.

The two groups occupied the same physical spaces, they ate at the same restaurants, entered all buildings and transport from the same entrance, sat anywhere on buses. And yet my foreigner’s eyes quickly saw through this façade and identified the fault lines of virtual segregation. The new apartheid still did not allow the twain to commune freely even as they congregated. I could feel the barriers as soon as I stepped into those spaces. There was a sense of forced togetherness. If the gap between the two races could speak it would say, “Ok, we have to share this same physical space but we are not giving up our right to be separate. They can take away our right to segregation but they can’t take segregation out of our hearts”. It was in what was missing in the interaction between black and white. There was no ease, peacefulness, insignificance, silence, freedom, love.

What existed in that gap was tension, a hateful watchfulness and worst of all an embryonic violence that was always ready to grow into fully-fledged adulthood. You could feel it. This violence ebbed and flowed and hung around like a dark threat. When I was amongst black people everyone was relaxed, very laid back, but in the presence of a group of white people in the segregated spaces there was an all round tensing alertness, an expectation of something unpleasant.

Black and white people occupied those common public spaces differently too. White people seemed to strut and begrudge black people’s presence. It was white people who still seemed to be the bona fide owners of the space. Black people were the interlopers, but they had no choice, they had to occupy the spaces, otherwise they risked recreating segregation by their absence. But the sense of threat in those spaces implied that black people occupied those spaces at their peril. Desegregation had been about pulling down the limits placed on the existence of black people. It was not white people who were fighting to sit in the seats reserved for black people on buses or to use the blacks-only entrances. Desegregation demands that white people cede the space and privileges that define their superior place in society.

Race in the north

My experience of race in the American north was not one of absence but rather that the north was racially clandestine, a state I much preferred. It gave me freedom to spend many more hours in a day being just another human being. The colour of my skin was not a constant conscious presence foisted on me by open racial hostility. Thank you but I am not black, I really am just a person. I am an African living in Africa so although I have many identities, being black is not my premier identity. That is the advantage of growing up black in Africa.

When I brought this to the attention of my southern black relatives-in-law they made that claim that always bemuses me. “I like the south,” they said, “the boundaries are clear, people here are not hypocrites like in the north. I know where I stand with them here”.

“I know where I stand?” What the hell is that? What I understand from that telling statement is an admission on the part of black people that it’s OK for there to be limits on a black person’s existence. I never heard a white person say things like that, only black people. For a person to know where he or she could go and what he or she could expect from their world simply because of the hue of their skin. In other words there was a limit of possibility which means that there was no possibility at all. And it was fine for white people to have veto powers over the dreams, the scope of existence of black people. You can dream so much and no more. You can aspire so far and no further, these are the limits on your movement. And black people accepted this proscribed world and were happy that they knew their place in this controlled world. That world was a banned dream which they passed on to their children and this was done with the active connivance of black people.

I understand how dangerous the world in which black people live in the south is. I imbibed a small part of that fear many thousands of miles away from movies and media reports of the Ku Klux Klan. So much so that I arrived in America terrified. For four days I refused to leave my sister’s apartment because I was sure the Ku Klux Klan were going to gun me down. Living with that dreadful history can skew anyone and the wonder is that black people have lived to step out of the shadow of such terrors and nightmares. The journey has had its negative impact such that sometimes their ability to see beyond the boundaries of their terror has been compromised.

This is where Africans can lend their sight when dreams have been extinguished. We have the same racial reality because our existence in the world gives us the same reference points. Yet we live in our own homes largely amongst our own people. We are not vested only in a racial reality. Our human reality predominates. We can fly above “black person negatives” and separate fact from damaging fiction.

A person exposed to these negatives on a daily basis for most of their life will lose their perspective. Such an environment can beat down the most thick-skinned, sanguine, optimist man and woman and create an oversensitive “defensive human” who can no longer see the forest for the trees and perceives racism under every bush. Such an environment can leave people severely embattled and debilitated. The centuries of actual and virtual lynching that black people have been subjected to in the US will do that.

Psychologically I am rather sensitive. I found the race issue to be intrusive enough in the north where it was not so in-your-face.. I found myself engaged from time to time in what manifested as flash-back-filled bouts of mother-less-child weeping. The kind of crying that was inconsolable, with heaving and copious tears. The kind that is only done in hiding. The first time it happened I did not understand what was going on. From nowhere came floods of tears. At first they were quite frequent, every three months or so. Soon the stretch between one bout and another grew and they finally stopped. I had stopped expecting more out of this country.

What were they? They were silent tears of rage and despair at the seemingly unseen-with-the-naked-eye accumulation of incidents of racism that I encountered on a daily basis. My mother has always told me that I am too thin-skinned, I let things get too easily under my skin. And it’s true. I just let the incidents seep into my subconscious. I never could speak out at them. I had no skills to deal with them in the moment. The moment of action would be long past before I recognised what had happened. And some were subtle, only discernable in the pattern my subconscious registered as I remained preoccupied with the hunt for that cut price designer shoe that I desired and could afford on my student stipend only if I bought it in a bargain basement-type store. It wasn’t until it had long happened, again and again, from store to store, in a single day, that I finally recognised what had been going on. The only black person in the group of friends being singled out for kindly help, again and again.

So what about the Marxism?

So what about the Marxism itself? I know that many people will find it surprising that I became a Marxist in America but it was common knowledge back then that you were likely to become Marxist, or at the very least end up leaning way to the left ,if you did your studies in the US. The reverse held true if you went to study in the USSR, you turned irrevocably capitalist and probably ended up holding some extreme rightwing perspectives. Certainly, I found many of my friends and relatives who went to study in the USSR ideologically bereft. For both groups it was shopping that did it. According to my friends who went to the USSR, the empty shelves turned them to the right.

In the US the shopping experience couldn’t have been more different. Walk into a supermarket, any old supermarket, not even some hypermarket, and there were shelves and shelves of different brands of detergents. Twenty different brands of dog food. Try buying toothpaste and you had to choose from a row of thirty brands. I was confused about what parameters to base my choice on, and offended at the waste. As a consumer, I had to ask myself why would I need thirty varieties of toothpaste to choose from? What’s funny is that back home the thought of such a long list of western goodies had always sounded delicious. Back then, western goodies were in short supply and some were not available in real time. You did not expect to keep up with trends in music or fashion in real time for example. There was a genuine difference between the third and first worlds largely based on time.

This time difference meant that at home there was a premium to being ahead of the pack. I still remember the cachet of being one of the first to own those skin-tight Jordache jeans that were not going to hit the Nairobi streets for another two years at least, the first to wear the latest lip gloss, the really glossy kind. This particular trend might become extinguished before it’s existence is even heard of in Nairobi, and there I was wearing it because I had made a trip to New York city. With some of these more transient trends there was always the danger that no one ever got to even hear about them and decide that they were a “must have” fashion item. The extreme third world trendoid ran the risk of simply looking strange and eccentric rather than enviably trendy. Sometimes I thought that it would have been useful to wear a T-shirt reading, “This thing that I am wearing really is the latest trend in London, New York, Milan.”

The road to my becoming a Marxist was littered with hardship though, and I almost didn’t make it. First, it was clear that I had a problem, I was the problem. When I stepped into the graduate class at C University, I was the first African for over ten years. And I was the first African woman in more years than that. I am Kenyan, which back then had a baffling specialness. I still remember the whispers as I walked past fellow students during the first few weeks. Later, when I made friends, I found out that my arrival had been announced and was anticipated, “Class we will have a real Kenyan woman”. I was used to being taken for granted much more at home. For a while I basked in this adulation. Soon enough it was rudely interrupted. Apparently it had come to everyone’s attention that I was bourgeois. This according to the Marxists made me a criminal. It was my political class in Africa that kept the peasants downtrodden while my economic class exploited the workers. I was held personally culpable for the ills of the continent. I kid you not; when the lecturers talked about the problem the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie presented in Africa, my fellow classmates turned round and looked at me with accusing eyes.

And it gets worse; I had servants. This particular thing was treated like some sort of character flaw. A friend of mine captures the dangers of being found out as an employer of servants by left-leaning elements in the US at that time. She was doing the bleeding-heart liberal thing, working in one of those poorly paid jobs while learning at the feet of some feminist guru. One day she was called into the boardroom where the head feminists were meeting. The interrogation revolved around questions of whether she had servants at home. She turned red (she is a Kenyan of a hue that can blush) and fidgeted violently, giving her discomfort away. She realised she was on the horns of a dilemma. What was she to do? If she admitted that she had servants she could be fired. But she realised her behaviour had given her away so an outright lie was out of the question. She chose to limit the potential damage by making a partial admission.

“Yes we have servants”, she admitted with her fingers crossed, “But only part-time.” Many years later we roared with laughter at how much we lay down at the feet of little tyrants just because they were supposed to be ideologically sound.

To be honest, although I would have chewed razorblades before I admitted this back then, the logic of my fellow students escaped me, but I was still intimidated into silence. This is what I would have told them had I been able to speak up. “Any African attending university is by definition no longer a peasant, a worker or a proletariat even if they are a direct descendent of any of these preferred classes. A real worker is out there being just that, a worker, not attending graduate school in the USA. Not all Africans are guilty of oppressing their brothers and sisters back home. Heck, Africans have the right to not be poor, peasants or workers. We can be anything.” This is what has always been so intriguing for me. The attitudes of my fellow students were not strange. Africans are allowed only to be poor. It seems to me that the logic that follows is that then they can be saved or rescued from their conditions by kindly Westerners. There is no place for Africans who can look after themselves in the psyche of the West. And interestingly, there appears to be no scenario for what happens when the “helping” has worked. The logic seems to suggest that for Africans there must be no rainbow.

News of a coup

In 1982 news of a coup in my country was met with all round gloating. A fellow student whom I considered a friend broke the news of the coup with words to this effect:

“You Kenyans have been the darlings of the West and now finally you have fallen!” he announced with glee.

He was not simply being mean, he was just being a Marxist. Others joined in, expressing joy at the collapse of this false citadel that was often touted as a capitalist success story by the West much to the chagrin of the leftist elements in the same West. Today that Kenya seems too good to be true. A few years earlier, in 1975, a World Bank report had noted that “Kenya is now in the second year of its second decade as an independent nation. Behind it lies a record of sustained growth in production and income that has rarely been surpassed by countries in Kenya’s stage of development”. These are some of the statistics that offended people: In 1975 27 per cent of Kenya’s population was living below the poverty line. GDP grew at a rate of 6.6 per cent. It is true that by 1982 things were beginning to collapse as the post-Kenyatta regime that we like to call the “Moi error” began to slash at the progress made in the first decade of the country’s independence.

Today Kenya is very different; World Bank statistics reveal a country deeply mired in poverty. Poverty levels are at 57 per cent and, between 1997 and 2002 GDP has reached a low of 1.1 per cent. Although it is doing much better now, it is literally digging itself out from a deep hole. Is Kenya today a Marxist’s wet dream? I don’t know, all I can say that it is uncomfortable to live in the midst of all this poverty. And now, many years later, we know that extreme poverty does not a revolution make. From examples everywhere, it can lead to a total implosion as a country sinks into civil war or worse.

My response to the coup

Whilst my fellow students celebrated back then, all I could think of was the safety and security of my family and friends. Beyond that I didn’t know what else to think. We Kenyans had grown used to the idea that we were special, not like other African countries which we saw as prone to coups and other forms of violent unrest and crazy despotic leaders. Our leaders were mild in comparison. With this mindset, I was simply unprepared. Over the next four days, my alarm grew when I was unable to get through to my parents when I tried to reach them by phone. I eventually got through and confirmed that all my family were safe. One of the symbols of our success was an efficient telephone system. I could always get through. What is amazing is the accuracy of some of the stories I heard about what happened to people I knew thousands of miles away. I heard about a guy whom I knew getting shot while looking at the unfolding coup through the window of a second-floor apartment and I came home to find this story to be true; he had indeed died in exactly the way it had been described to me.

This meanness not withstanding, Marxism gave me a huge measure of freedom by giving my mind options to go beyond. It gave me alternatives to understanding how life works. I came to appreciate that the conditions that I found myself in as a woman or as an African were historical and that there was a wider context for my existence. As for Ronald Reagan, he unwittingly played his part in expanding my mind and making sure that I had to step out of the shadow of ideas of America as the land of salvation for myself or my continent. For two years, I watched this man behave as if he had come from a village in the dark ages and I gave up all my notions of the West as the source of wisdom, hope and help for my continent.

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Post-Gaddafi Libya and the Unleashing of Anarchy in the Sahel

With Muammar Gaddafi gone, battle-hardened desert tribal groupings and latent ethnic rivalries have erupted in the Sahel, producing hundreds of small conflicts that had been simmering for decades.

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Post-Gaddafi Libya and the Unleashing of Anarchy in the Sahel
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On February 16th 2011, the Arab spring hit the streets of Misrata through sporadic street protests, then spread out into other Libyan cities, ostensibly sparked by the arrest of a human rights activist in the restive eastern city of Benghazi. Libya was simply catching on to the spontaneous civil blowup that was sweeping across the region against a litany of social ills, political mess and economic repression in the wider Middle East.

Libya, the geographical buffer between Egypt in the east and Tunisia in the west fell into that hysterical upheaval along the Mediterranean strip and colonel Muamar Gadhafi just didn’t have the institutional or diplomatic backing needed to stem such a fallout.

It’s often whispered that by not creating independent judicial, parliamentary and social structures but instead building a ‘rule by the people’ Gadhafi had succeeded in building the country around himself. This worked well to foment his grip, but proved to be the fragility of his stranglehold, once the eruption in the Libyan city of Benghazi began to spread outwards. The 3rd century AD city of Benghazi uniquely resented Gadhafi after he took its capital status to Tripoli and stripped it off its stature and prestige during his 1969 coup.

His mistake also partly explains how within just 10 months, the street protests had morphed into an all-out civil war backed by European countries that eventually toppled him, on 20th October 2011, a rare feat, for a leader who’d held to power since 1969. This Arab Spring was simply the culmination of low-grade isolated fights that had impacted the wider Arab civilization since the days of the radical Muslim cleric Sayyid Qutb and his views on the holy jihad in the 1950s.

Starting in his days as a colonel, Qaddafi has always been an ideologically erratic and pragmatic fox who’s Pan-African ambitions unsettled many primitively territorial, and provincially-minded African presidents around him. He misused this ambition though, to advance Libya’s regional clout as the most lucrative player in the Sahelian, sub-Saharan and Arabian political marketplaces.

Jesse B. Awalt/Released

Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan chief of state, gives his first speech as Chairperson of the African Union in the Plenary Hall of the United Nations building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during the 12th African Union Summit Feb. 2, 2009. The assembly elected Qaddafi to replace Kikwete as chair of the organization. Photo. Wikipedia/Jesse B. Awalt

More than 15 African president and rebel leaders and their respective countries are said to have inordinately benefited from his largesse fueled by his desire to buy or control everyone territorially. It should be remembered that Gadhafi pursued pan-Africanism only after his 1970/80s pan-Arabism dream proved unviable.

The recent coups in Mali and clashes in Niger and Cameroon are simply part of the wider Sahelian cocktail of devastation caused by converging scourges of climate change, weak regimes, violent jihadis, droughts, rising population, raging poverty, arms smuggling, and corruption. Gadhafi had somehow managed to suppress these regional problems through a combination of threats, cash, promises and charisma.

The war lords, South American drug smugglers through the Conakry coast, and Western mining companies all benefited from Gadhafi’s ambitions which inadvertently stabilized the hostile 9.2 million square kilometer Sahara Desert.  The desert measures 4800 kilometers in length and 1931 kilometer width landmass and makes up the largest desert in the world.

So when Gadhafi fell, the Sahelian communities on Libya’s southern borders, and in adjacent borderlands, became the recipients of wave after wave of returnees armed with dwindling cash reserves, ideas about democracy, firearms, superiority complex, and battle hardened combat experience.

More consequentially the Libyan crisis produced an estimated 600,000 returning Tuareg welders, blue-collar employees, miners, specialists, returnee migrants, and worst of all, mercenaries. Gadhafi’s inner circle, African dissidents, his lieutenants, and armed mercenaries ended up with large cash reserves, war experience, huge weaponry caches, and rebel networks running from eastern Senegal to western Sudan and across the Red Sea into the Arabian gulf.

When Gadhafi ruled the Sahel, ordering bombings and peace in equal measure across the region, he’d never had imagined that his end would come in the hands of a 22 year old Omraan Shaban. Shaban, a millennial with an elongated nose, a caricature like moustache, a pouty mouth that mimicked a muffled rage, and sunken white eyes became a sensation as part of the team that shot Gadhafi.

A resident of Misrata in the western Mediterranean coast, Omraan Shaban would become the embodiment of the capture of the strongman in the graffiti-laden culvert in Sirte town, and a symbol of youthful hubris or heroism depending on how you look at it. While the anti-Gadhafi rebellion started in the Eastern city of Beghazi the ultimate rivalry would come down to the two western Libyan cities; pro-Gadhafi Ben Walid town, versus anti-Gadhafi Misrata.

In 2012, 5 months after Gadhafi met his death, Omraan, a Misratan and member of the Shield brigade was part of the retaliation against kidnapping of 4 journalists in the pro-Gadhafi city of Ben Walid when he was captured and tortured for his role in the murder of Gadhafi. He’d later succumb to his bullet wounds in a French military hospital in September 2012 where he was receiving treatment.

Meanwhile further south in the Libyan desert border town of Ghat a tall bearded man, dressed in Bedouin clothes drives atop a white Land cruiser in the desert on the outskirts of the Akakus petroleum plant. Gadhafi’s fall had unraveled a 120 years’ truce that had existed between the city’s majority Tebu and Tuareg tribes close to the Libya-Algerian border.

Aboubaker Akhaty, a Toureg leader in Libya’s southern city of Ubari reckons that for a civilization built atop a gas reservoir, their existence was always going to depend on a skillful negotiation between the oil companies, marauding mercenaries, Tebu herdsmen and the flow of arms from the northern Libyan cities at the Mediterranean coast.

Destroyed tanks in Masrata, 2012. Photo. Flickr/joepyrek

Destroyed tanks in Masrata, 2012. Photo. Flickr/joepyrek

Mercenaries fleeing the fall of Gadhafi entered small cities that lie just across from the Algerian border town such as Ghat, Madam in Niger and Wath in Chad. The contested city of Ubari or Awbari was the last spot in Libya’s southern desert before these thousands of Gadhafi’s mercenaries vanished into the Sahara wilderness some for good, others not for long.

Ubari’s strategic importance in the Sahelian conflict is defined by the geographical fact that it’s flanked by one of Libya’s largest oilfield’s, El sharara to the north and the largest arms and oil smuggling routes to the south of the city and just north of the Chadian border. The Libya’s southern civil war was triggered 3 years after the fall of Gadhafi when Tebu and Tuareg smugglers started disputes over these lucrative smuggling routes.

An estimated 250,000 of the 600,000 workers who left Libya headed home to Niger, while 70,000 crossed into Chad, homeless and penniless and carrying everything with them from guns, household goods, ambition, hopes, ammunitions and versatility.

Southern Libyan towns like Sebha and Kufra, may not mean much to anyone outside its borders, but the fall of Gadhafi marked the beirut-ization of such cities lending them to the whim and impulses of drug lords, arms smugglers, human traffickers and became an existential threat to weak regimes in Niger, Chad, and northern Sudan. These lawless cities served as the rear attack flank for armed rebel groups like the Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and host to rebel leaders, fleeing soldiers, and their Middle eastern, and Eurasian fixers.

With its origins in the scenic Algeria’s Kalbiye mountains which are part of the Mediterranean Atlas ranges, AQIM formerly known as  Salafist Group for Preaching and Combatrebranded in 2007, 4 years before the fall of Gadhafi and would move in to establish its post-Gadhafi territory by recruiting from southern Algeria, south-east Libya and among the Beribiche tribe in the coup-laden northern Mali.

Kidnapped special UN envoy to the Niger’s Agadez region Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat, who was held hostage by AQ-IM for 4 months in the Sahara Desert in 2010, wrote in his book A Season in Hell that  “There was a big gulf in the AQIM between those who were black and those who were not. They preached equality, but did not practice it. Sub-Saharan Africans were clearly second class in the eyes of AQIM.” The racially motivated militant groups like AQIM tried filling the vacuum created by the absence of Gadhafi, using recruitment and local spy networks, arms supply, other logistics and illicit trade activities.

By 2013, the post-Gadhafi AQIM spread its tentacles to other parts of the region and forged alliances with murderous groups like Ansar Dine in Mali and northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Besides the core Sahelian states, of Mali, CAR, Nigeria, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, northern Chad and Sudan’s Darfur region soon became victims of unmitigated tribal, economic and security crisis after the fall of Gadhafi. Returnee migrants, Tuareg mercenaries and the flow of arms from Gadhafi’s looted weapon caches is what created this precarious security situation in Mali and the wider Sahelian states.

Demonstrably, over the last 10 years, the combined effects of these realities have reinforced existing pockets of unrest within the Sahel region, with increased fallouts around northern Mali. The Tuaregs under the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), with their access to lots of arms, anti-tank and explosives continue to drive their desire for a Tuareg republic in the Western Sahara to be named Azawad.

A series of military losses beginning in late 2011 such as the fall of cities like Gao and Kidal to the rebels by the Malian army, had exposed the dire underbelly of a Post-Gadhafi Sahel.  Inadequate resourcing, poor tactical leadership, and failure to master the terrain by the region’s national armies led to about 1000 troops either killed, taken captive or deserted in the French-led Operation Serval, Operation Barkhane and Operation Epervier.

The initial push for a Tuareg country was marked by a motivated secular ethno-nationalist patriotism for a people long loathed by their neighboring tribes as well as the French since they massacred an entire French military convoy led by Eugen Bonnier at Goundam in 1894.

While Niger’s Tuareg returnees came to a land for whom civilization had bypassed, their Malian Tuareg brothers pitched camp at Zaka, in northern Mali a scene straight out of the surface of the moon. The strategic difference is that their Malian cousins had armed themselves with guns, even greater ambition, desert Landcruisers, an ideology and guns, lots of guns.

As Gadhafi sneaked around the town of Sirte trying to evade eventual capture and the French drones above in late 2011, Ibrahim Bahanga his longtime ally headed to Kidai region in Northeast Mali, just outside intadjedite, and not far off from his birthplace, at Tin-Essako. His vision-to establish the Tuareg country of Azawad-would outlive him as he fell under a staged accident, in late August 2011, two months before Gadhafi’s assassination.

Bahanga’s death deep in the Malian Sahara Desert in a suspicious car accident few hours before a crucial meeting of Tuareg rebel leaders was the first in a series of major setbacks that were to follow. Few weeks later the Malian Sahel was hit with the worst drought in 27 years taking away attention and crucial war resources-misfortunes were piling. The historically articulate but politically naïve deputy Bilal Cherif took over after Bahanga’s death to continue the quest of MNLA rebel group for an independent Azawad state for Tuaregs.

While Bahanga and Cherif pursued a secular ethno-nationalist ambition, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb AQIM arrived too, with their desert Land cruisers, and awash with guns. There’s was a fundamentalist plan to set up the long desired caliphate that would ideally span the Sahara from Senegal in the West to Sudan in the East and Yemen across the Red Sea. Local Islamic group Ansar Dine awaited the AQIM and together they’d launch a joint war against Malian Army in the north. The 3-way battle lines soon concretized as secular Tuareg nationalists battled with farming bantu southerners in Mali, as well as AQIM’s Islamic militias from the edges of the Sahara.

On January 17th 2012 three months after the death of Bahanga, MNLA launched their first offensive for the liberation of Azawad. The ill-equipped Malian army found itself fighting rebels with competing visions of a liberated desert north; with secular Tuaregs on one front and the Islamic jihadist on the other-causalities mounted. In the south, the Bambara, an ethnic subtribe of the dominant Mande tribe, who made up some of the highest causalities in the Malian military poured out into the streets of Bamako, angered by the images of dead soldiers coming from the Malian insurgency war in the north.

By the time the US state department spokesperson Nuland called the press on 22 March 2012, to voice support for Malian regime under president Amodue Toumani Toure, the military Captain Sanogo had taken over and the president fled the country. As the cool of the afternoon beat off the scorching Malian desert afternoon sun the secular MNLA convoy rode into the Malian city of Gao in pickup trucks, while the Islamic AQIM drove into the town of Timbuktu to the specter of pensive residents. The remaining Malian forward operating bases (FOB) collapsed as Malian Army fled south abandoning stash of cash, weapons, and military infrastructure reminiscent to what had happened to Gadhafi 6 months earlier.

The MNLA Tuareg under Colonel Meshkenani Bela led the conquest into northern Mali and takeover of Gao, but overlooked a critical fact that would haunt them afterwards. They were a minority tribe on the Niger river bend where they were outnumbered by local tribes like the Songhay and the Fulani who were anything but impressed by their takeover. While the Tuareg MNLA entered Gao city through the west, the Islamic Militant Movement for Oneness and Jihad MOJAO which had broken off from AQIM entered through the east and laid claim to sections of Gao-the powdered keg now just needed a fuse.

By March 30th 2012, it soon became clear that Tuareg’s MNLA had neither the capacity nor experience to govern politically and the Islamic MOJAO-buoyed by their merge with terror leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al Mulathameen-pounced upon the chance to run and stake claim to Gao.

The former Malian army leader turned Tuareg rebel commander Colonel Al Salat Habi, who oversaw the city of Gao on behalf of MNLA had only one option-to negotiate with Al Qaeda, an enemy he’d fought both as an army man in Aguelhoc town and now as a tribal Tuareg commander at Gao.

By April 2012 Northern Mali fell, regional powers panicked, drug smuggling routes tanked and rerouted to Tanzania and Kenya and hostage taking replaced the collapsing drug trade, and raked in upwards of $250 million for groups like MOJAO.

Meanwhile in April 6th 2012 the MNLA under the leadership of Bilal Cherif declared the independence of the state of Azawad. For decades the Malian state had become complacent, even accommodating of the Al Qaeda as a counterforce to the threat of a Tuareg civil war.

Osama Bin Laden’s geographical curiosity of the African Sahel during his time in Sudan, and the desire for a remote desert caliphate had paid off as AQIM ruled the historically and strategically important city of Timbuktu. They imposed a local Muslim Tuareg, Tohar, as their commander. Al Qaida-IM made up in cultural literacy and political tact what they lacked in cash resources.

They partnered with Ansar Dine, used the Tuareg tribesmen in police and civilian roles to smoothen their interaction with local Tuareg populations. But what they achieved through the social and ethnic blend of Ansar Dine, AQIM, through its radical scholars like Abu Al Baraa undid and inspired global rage by introducing public floggings, beheadings, and tearing down of 14th and 15th century historical shrines and structures. The world had to act, and act fast.

It is a testament to the Tuareg’s geo-political illiteracy that their most contested lands is in Northern Mali which is the least mineral endowment of all their lands, smaller in size relative to the adjacent countries and one in which they are demographically outnumbered.

As the situation deteriorated in Northern Mali, the situation is worse in central Mali. There, ethnic Bambara and Dogon tribes organized murderously efficient armed militias, known as Dozo hunters which culminated in Ogossagou massacre that saw 170 Fulani men, women and children murdered.

Across the border in Niger, Bedouin and Tuareg’s Movement for National Justice (MNJ) was already fomenting a rebellion against the massive billion-dollar French uranium mining facility-Areva. It’s a testament to the extreme marginalization that the region remained wretched poor and desolate despite supplying 5% of the world’s high-grade uranium.

Residents of Timbuktu pass by Djingareyber Mosque. Photo. Flickr/UN Photo

Residents of Timbuktu pass by Djingareyber Mosque. Photo. Flickr/UN Photo

In June 2012, Azawad in northern Mali soon fell into the hands of Al Qaeda-IM and Ansar Dine, who didn’t waste time in advancing south to the Malian town of Konna and massacred a Malian army regiment in what came to be known as ‘’The Battle of Konna’’. The world’s patience ran out. France sent its tanks rolling north and east of Mali as NATO jets bombarded their strongholds. The Al Qaeda’s last message while atop grey desert Landcruisers was a promise of retreating into the desert but they’ll soon be back to exert Allah’s vengeance on the infidels.

In the last 8 years since, the Tuareg rebels, local armies, and Islamic radicals have since split into hundreds of highly mobile militias that launch attacks on the border between Mali, Niger, Chad, Algeria, Mauritania, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.

In 2008 Mohammed Yusuf, a 38-year-old Salafi preacher in Maiduguri town, northeast of Nigeria and close to the Lake Chad, fed up by the excesses of the southern Nigerian elites, drew crowds towards the promise of caliphate that will redistribute the oil and mining revenues. Yusuf was an admirer and avowed devotee of 14th century Salafist Muslim cleric Ibn Tammiyah. In mid-2009 his followers Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad famously known as Boko Haram clashed with the Army at a custom checkpoint close to Gamboru area in Maiduguri, Nigeria. He was hunted from his in-law’s house, detained then later on mutilated and his body dumped by the road.

The viral video of his cuffed and badly executed body unleashed a reign of terror and retaliations by his loyalists. His deputy Abubakar Shekau took over and wasted no time in reconnecting with Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb across the border, and over the next 4 years extended an olive branch to radicals as far as Al Shabaab in Somalia.

In 2013 Boko Haram attacked and killed a Nigerian cop in the Northeast town of Baga followed by a major attack at Bama, and the incensed Nigerian army responded in kind by mowing down dozens, torched houses and left behind estimated 180 corpses and countless who drowned in the nearby lake Chad while trying to flee the carnage.

Lake Chad lies further west of Niger, just north of the Chadian Capital N’djamena and borders Cameron, Nigeria and Niger itself. The 1350sq kilometer lake is the largest water body in the Sahel and one of the last buffers against the ravages of the southward expanding Sahara desert. Between 1978 and 1995 the lake shrank 95% unleashing a humanitarian, ecological, and climatic disaster only comparable to the globally catastrophic drying up of the Aral Sea in the Soviet Union and its direct impact on nearly 100 million lives.

The climatic disaster has been accompanied by civic, geographical and colonial disasters such as the demarcations that cut off the villages from Baga, the regionally largest and closest trading post in Northeast Nigeria. The Chadian regime inadvisably moved the state’s regional offices from the lake’s largest island to the city of Bol on the shores among the Islamic Kanembou tribe and away from the fishing Bougourmi tribe-the two tribes historically don’t get along.

In his heydays Muammar Gadhafi had sponsored numerous plans to topple the CIA-backed former Chadian president Hissène Habré which culminated in the 1986/7 disastrous Toyota Wars in which the two forces fought fiercely atop Toyota Hiluxes supplied by France and the US. The post 1990 Idris Deby’s regime hasn’t done a better job of strengthening institutions and rebuilding the country. He’s committing a mistake that his former northern neighbor Gadhafi had done years earlier and it had costed him his life. Outside of the capital N’Djamena, the only other semblance of civilization is the world’s scenic 18 strips Ounianga lakes in the north and the 3rd largest city of Abeche in the east.

In 1980 Chad ended up in a long running civil war, and Gadhafi in his signature style provided arms, political sanction and logistical support to the Arab Nomads rebels hiding in Eastern Libya. The Sudanese government, well aware of the repercussions of the Chadian civil war pouring across its borders, armed the Arabic-speaking Abbala nomads as a buffer in that long running insurrection. The two groups later merged to form the infamous Janjaweed. Soon enough they drifted away from Gadhafi and provided existential utility to the Khartoum government as they battled with the Christian south.

The Janjaweed in turn lost Gadhafi’s outright support as they increasingly became Khartoum’s weapon of war and supplementary military flank against southern tribes like the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa peoples. Gadhafi didn’t mind though as he had backed Sudanese strongman Sadiq Al Mahdi to assume power in Sudan in 1986 until 1989 when Omar Al Bashir took over.

In mid-August 2011 Sudanese spy chief Mohammed Atta and former president Al Bashir-who was under an international arrest warrant-left for Tripoli and met Gadhafi ostensibly to discuss ‘the means to restore peace in Darfur. 10 months later the same Khartoum would supply anti-Gadhafi rebels in the east with arms and logistical supply rerouted through southwest Egypt.

With Gadhafi gone, the arm stockpiles, battle-hardened desert tribes and latent ethnic rivalries that he had long suppressed have erupted, producing hundreds of small conflicts which were simmering for decades.

My ‘worst mistake’ is what Obama called his toppling of Gadhafi in Libya during his mid-April 2016 interview aired on Fox News. Gadhafi, for all his flaws had outfoxed many adversaries and used his Bedouin credibility and mastery of the desert power politics to navigate complex regional, political, historical and religious interests in the Sahel and just like in Libya he had ensured they were all built around his fist, flair or charisma.

His rule had been marred by the Palestinian cause, the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing, the 1988 Lorkerbie Plane Crash, the 1989 blowing up of the French UTA airliner over Niger, the 1987 alleged coup plot in Kenya, in a never-ending list of proven and purported mischief. What’s not in doubt is that his 42 years reign had an oversized impact on the local, and regional power equilibriums.

Therefore, his ouster and death in that culvert in Sirte city in October 2011 was inevitably going to create a Sahelian vacuum that set off chain reactions from eastern Senegal through a dozen countries all the way east and south of Sahara. The ensuing chaos was inevitable,. There was just no two ways about it. Former US Defense Secretary in one of his last interviews before leaving office estimated it’ll take about 30 years to quell the militant extremism unleashed post-9/11.

So the current coup in Mali, the rise of AQIM, and AQAP, and forging links with Al Shabaab, Janjaweed, Tuareg insurrection, Ansar Dine, Boko Haram and dozens of embedded militia groups are a legacy to an explosive powder keg for which Gadhafi’s death was simply the perfect fuse.

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