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Why Al-Shabaab Targets Kenya

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In his first address as the group’s Kenyan operations leader, Ahmed Iman Ali declared the country darsh-al-harb – House of War. Four of the five Dusit attackers were Kenyan. Still, the reasons the group focuses on the country, and not others in the region, run contrary to conventional assumptions. By NGALA CHOME.

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Why Al-Shabaab Targets Kenya
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Al-Shabaab has claimed that its January 15 attack on the Dusit D2 Complex was revenge for President Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is not the first time that a terrorist attack conducted on Kenyan soil has been justified by its perpetrators on the basis of events occurring thousands of miles away. For instance, the date of the August 7 1998 Al-Qaeda attack on the U.S embassy in Nairobi coincided with the same date, in 1991, when U.S troops first landed in Saudi-Arabia in preparation for the Gulf War, which Al-Qaeda regarded as a Christian invasion of ‘Muslim lands’.

Kenya may have suffered these attacks since it is considered a key ally of the West. But why is Al-Shabaab (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) targeting Kenya more than it is other countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, which also have close ties with the West and have fought Al-Shabaab in Somalia? To what extent does Al-Shabaab attack Kenya for the reasons it publicly gives? Will Al-Shabaab, for example, stop targeting Kenya if the Kenya Defence Forces pulled out of Somalia?

Also, why are Kenyans, many of whom are recent converts to Islam, joining Al-Shabaab? Four of the five Dusit D2 attackers were Kenyans. Some analysts have found that status, adventure seeking, financial gain and revenge are prominent drivers of enlistment, while others submit that ideological commitments to an Islamist vision, driven by local Muslim experiences and a global narrative of ‘Muslim victimization’ have stronger explanatory power. Others have argued that it is due to a combination of wider socioeconomic conditions, and individual-level psychosocial characteristics that turn young converts to a path of violent extremism. At the same time, an authoritative account of Al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia found that despite the varied and complex motivations for joining the group, the most common reasons given include a quest for justice through Sharia legislation and an idea of ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ jihad. This way of understanding the world can be regarded as empowering for some individuals, as membership can be compared to a conversion process, which can be considered a central benefit – more than access to material resources – of participating in ‘jihad movements’. These questions and debates, which have preoccupied a community of analysts and practitioners within a broad-based programme for policy intervention commonly referred to as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), have been laid bare, yet again, in the unfolding drama of the DusitD2 attack.

Kenya may have suffered these attacks since it is considered a key ally of the West. But why is Al-Shabaab (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) targeting Kenya more than it is other countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, which also have close ties with the West and have fought Al-Shabaab in Somalia?

At the centre of the attack was Ali Salim Gichunge, the son of a Meru military officer, and the leader of the cell that was behind the attack, and his wife, Violet Kemunto Omwoyo, a Kisii convert to Islam, and journalism graduate at the Masinde Muliro University in Western Kenya. Their story is important as it not only defies Kenya’s ethnic fictions, but also disrupts widespread perceptions of Islamist violence in the country.

Yet, the story of Gichunge and Kemunto is not entirely new, peripheral nor fringe. Exactly six years before Gichunge stormed DusitD2 with his associates, wearing his baseball cap on backwards, wielding an AK-47 rifle smuggled from Somalia, and baying for the blood of innocent civilians, Al-Shabaab announced the appointment of an ‘ideological leader’ for its Kenyan operations: Ahmed Iman Ali, then about 40 years old and of mixed Meru and Kamba origins. In the January 2012 video released by Al-Shabaab’s media wing, al-Kataib, Iman Ali – he grew up in the Majengo slums of Nairobi, graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Nairobi, and became the secretary of Majengo’s largest mosque, the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, before fleeing to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab in 2009 – described Kenya as dar-al-harb – the house of war. Its people, he said, were legitimate targets of violent attacks.

Why are Kenyans, many of whom are recent converts to Islam, joining Al-Shabaab?

Years before he joined Al-Shabaab, Iman Ali led an ouster of the Pumwani Mosque committee, which he accused of corruption and embezzlement. Speaking against a litany of socio-economic hardships afflicting his predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, Iman Ali was a powerful balm for Majengo’s long-felt sense of exclusion and powerlessness in a Christian-dominated country.

That was in 2007. In 2012 when he was announced leader of Al-Shabaab’s Kenya operations, he was believed to be in command of hundreds of foreign fighters with the Somalia-based group, most of whom were his childhood friends from Majengo, with origins in Central Kenya, Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western regions.

At the centre of the attack was Ali Salim Gichunge, the son of a Meru military officer, and his wife, Violet Kemunto Omwoyo, a Kisii convert to Islam, and journalism graduate at the Masinde Muliro University in Western Kenya. Their story is important as it not only defies Kenya’s ethnic fictions, but also disrupts widespread perceptions of Islamist violence in the country.

Gichunge had himself graduated from high-school in 2011 with a mean grade of C+, and after his hopes of playing rugby for his school were dashed after he was bullied by other students – it led to him having to change schools – he turned his to Information Technology. It was while working at a cyber-café in Isiolo that Gichunge, who was raised in a strict Muslim household, got introduced to radical online sheikhs. He left Isiolo for Somalia immediately after that. Amongst the group of Kenyan Al-Shabaab militants he met in Somalia were former bandits, some with serious criminal records.

Most of these recruits would have been shuttled to Somalia by Juma Ayub Otit Were, a Muslim-Luhya born and raised in the Huruma slums of Nairobi. After he was accused of theft by his employer in Eastleigh, losing his job as a result, Ayub secured a new role with Iman Ali’s outfit, the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), where he became responsible for shuttling a large number of recruits from Nairobi’s slums and other parts of up-country Kenya to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab. The police, who were trailing his activities, code-named him ‘Taxi-Driver’.

Years before he joined Al-Shabaab, Iman Ali led an ouster of the Pumwani Mosque committee, which he accused of corruption and embezzlement.

Some of the early recruits, like Sylvester Opiyo and Kassim Omondi aka Budalangi, both of whom hailed from Nairobi’s Majengo slums; and Jeremiah Okumu aka Duda Black and Stephen Mwanzi aka Duda Brown, who hailed from Nairobi’s Kibera slums, were all well-known thugs before joining Al-Shabaab. Their predisposition towards violence and unlawful behaviour turned a new leaf when the prospects for military training with Al-Shabaab in Somalia became more imminent. After developing networks with Iran, Ali’s group at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, whose influence since 2007 had spread to other mosques in Nairobi, especially those located in neighbourhoods long-neglected by government service, namely Masjid Kibera, Masjid Huruma, and the Masjid Nuur in Kawangware, they quickly converted to Islam and travelled to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab. They were funnelled towards Al-Shabaab’s Majimmo’ sector in Southern Somalia – an area of operations assigned predominantly to East African militants – under the command of the then 25 year-old Titus Nabiswa, who was a recent convert to Islam from Bungoma in western Kenya. In Nabiswa’s group were other militants from the Kenya coast, who had largely been radicalised by the sermons and mosque lectures (darsas) of the late Sheikh Aboud Rogo and the late Abubakar Shariff, aka Makaburi, two Mombasa preachers who had come to symbolise the face of Islamist terror in Kenya. Also in the group were Kenyan-Somalis (mostly from Nairobi’s Eastleigh and South C districts), including foreign militants such as Jermaine Grant and Thomas Evans from England, and Andreas Martin Mueller from Germany.

By 2012, Ali Gichunge, who was partly raised inside the Isiolo army barracks, was screening new Kenyan recruits in Baidoa, almost all of whom were Christian converts to Islam.

Upon their return to Kenya in 2010, some members of this group were responsible for a spate of killings, targeted especially at police officers, including twin-grenade attacks at Uhuru Park on June 13 that killed six people during a campaign rally organised by Christian leaders to drum up opposition against the proposed constitution of 2010. The police responded strongly to this violence, which seemed unsanctioned by Al-Shabaab’s core leadership in Somalia, was distinctively unilateral, and largely uncoordinated.

After developing networks with Iman Ali’s group at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, whose influence since 2007 had spread to other mosques in Nairobi, especially those located in neighbourhoods long-neglected by government service, namely Masjid Kibera, Masjid Huruma, and the Masjid Nuur in Kawangware, they quickly converted to Islam and travelled to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab.

By 2014, with the killing of Makaburi – it was the last of targeted assassinations of radical sheikhs including Aboud Rogo most probably by Kenyan security forces – most returnees of the Majimmo sector group had either been arrested, killed, or were on the run from the police. For instance, Stephen Mwanzi and Jeremiah Okumu were abducted in Kisauni, Mombasa, in June 2012, never to be seen again; Kassim Omondi was killed in a gun-fight with the police who had gone to arrest him in his Githurai hideout in May 2013; while Titus Nabiswa was arrested and later killed during an escape attempt in Majengo, Mombasa in October 2012. Jermaine Grant was arrested in Kisauni, Mombasa, in December 2011, but his accomplices, Fuad Manswab Abubakar and Samantha Lewthwaite, aka, the white widow, and who earned her moniker from the death of her ex-husband (and Grant’s friend) Germaine Lindsay when he blew himself up during the London bombings of 2005, escaped to Somalia.

The security threat posed by this group had been eliminated. Or so it seemed.

Amniyaat and Jaysh Ayman

Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab’s reclusive and ambitious former leader, the late Ahmed Abdi Godane, was in search of a more potent offensive against Kenya – a need that was intensified by Kenya’s decision to send its troops to Somalia to root-out Al-Shabaab from its key bases in October 2011. The plans begun in mid-2013, after Godane had eliminated key figures within Al-Shabaab’s Shura (Executive Council) that had opposed his vision of turning Al-Shabaab from an essentially Somali movement into a transnational Islamist threat.

By 2014, with the killing of Makaburi – it was the last of targeted assassinations of radical sheikhs including Aboud Rogo most probably by Kenyan security forces – most returnees of the Majimmo sector group had either been arrested, killed, or were on the run from the police.

Godane took matters into his own hands, by bypassing the network of Kenyan Al-Shabaab members, he went ahead and tasked key figures within Al-Shabaab’s special operations and intelligence branch known as Amniyaat to begin planning operations against Kenya. At midday on 21 September 2013, 4 militants under the command of Amniyaat stormed Nairobi’s upscale shopping centre, Westgate, lobbing grenades and firing indiscriminately at shoppers. The subsequent siege lasted 80 hours and resulted in at least 67 deaths.

Following Westgate, Godane ordered a reorganisation of Al-Shabaab’s military wing, Jaysh al-Usra. The commander in the Lower and Middle Juba regions, Mohamed Kunow Dulyadeyn, a Kenyan-Somali from Garissa, began expanding his operations into Garissa and Wajir while Adan Garar, his counterpart in the Gedo region, expanded into Mandera. While this meant that attacks in Northeast Kenya would intensify from 2013 onwards, the leadership vacuum that was left by the 2011-2014 purge of Kenyan Al-Shabaab members had created a problem.

In Nairobi, Mombasa, Isiolo and Marsabit, where radical preachers and their militant followers had exercised some control, before suspected agents of the state killed most of them, a storm was brewing. At the Masjid Musa in Mombasa, the radicalised and violent followers of Rogo and Makaburi were growing ever more impatient, keen on proving their worth to Al-Shabaab’s core leadership in Somalia. In fact, a criminal gang formed around the leadership of a protégé of the late Makaburi called Ramadhan Kufungwa, a Digo from Ukunda in the South Coast. According to the police, Kufungwa ordered the gang to conduct a spate of robberies and killings of police and suspected police informers in Mombasa in 2014-2015.

In Nairobi, Mombasa, Isiolo and Marsabit, where radical preachers and their militant followers had exercised some control…a storm was brewing. At the Masjid Musa in Mombasa, the radicalised and violent followers of Rogo and Makaburi were…keen on proving their worth to Al-Shabaab’s core leadership in Somalia.

One of the gang’s members was a Tuk-Tuk driver and high-school drop-out called Mahir Khalid Riziki, who ended his life in a suicide mission at the DusitD2 attack, but was then a resident of Bondeni, a seedy rundown neighbourhood in Mombasa, and a sad reminder of its glorious past. Mahir and his friends immediately found themselves on the police radar. Using networks cultivated by Kufungwa, most of them made their way into an Al-Shabaab hide-out in the Boni forest, where a new unit called Jaysh Ayman (named after its first commander), had been formed in 2014 under the leadership of another former resident of Bondeni, Luqman Osman Issa.

Jaysh Ayman brought together Al-Shabaab fighters from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, and was part of Godane’s plan to turn Al-Shabaab into a potent regional force. In June-July 2014, Jaysh Ayman targeted the mainland areas of Lamu County, parts of which are covered by the Boni forest, where they killed close to 97 people in a rampage that shocked the nation and therefore, bolstered Al-Shabaab’s reputation for daring attacks and spectacular violence. Despite the death of most of its early leadership during an attack at a military camp within the Boni forest in June 2015, the unit has remained a potent threat to Kenya’s national security. By the time Gichunge and Mahir joined the unit, the Kenyan contingent of Al-Shabaab militants was larger, and better trained, and featured amongst its ranks, both the educated and uneducated, including petty criminals, drug addicts and HIV positive-persons. It is these militants that Al-Shabaab is now sending to Kenya as suicide-bombers and attackers.

Jaysh Ayman brought together Al-Shabaab fighters from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, and was part of Godane’s plan to turn Al-Shabaab into a potent regional force.

Still the question remains: why does Al-Shabaab target Kenya?

Trans-border attacks as propaganda by deed

Despite the claim that Al-Shabaab targets Kenya due to its passion for global jihad and to pressure the Kenyan government to remove its troops from Somalia, the evidence suggests that Al-Shabaab is driven by different strategic concerns and highly rational reasons. Granted, there has been an uptick in Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya since October 2011, when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia, but Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya go back to May 2008, when a police post in Liboi (a few kilometres from the Somali border) came under fire. Jermaine Grant, who had been held in the post after he was arrested on his way to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab, was freed during the attack.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) recorded 14 more attacks before September 2011, and then 49 in 2012, 35, in 2013, 80 in 2014, 42 in 2015, and 45 in 2016. While the GTD is yet to provide figures from 2017, existing evidence shows that of the 302 trans-border attacks perpetrated by Al-Shabaab from 2008-2016, 3 occurred in Ethiopia, 5 in Uganda, 2 in Djibouti and 291 in Kenya. Brendon Cannon and Dominic Pkalya, in a recent article, have argued that beyond sharing a border with Somalia, Al-Shabaab targets Kenya more than other frontline states because of the opportunity spaces linked to Kenya’s international status and visibility, its relative free and independent media that widely publicizes terrorist attacks, a highly developed and lucrative tourism sector that provides soft targets, expanding democratic space and high levels of corruption. In sum, these variables play into Al-Shabaab’s motivations and aid planning and execution of acts that aim to fulfil the group’s quest to survive – as it losses more ground in Somalia – by maintaining its relevance on the global stage.

Of the 302 trans-border attacks perpetrated by Al-Shabaab from 2008-2016, three occurred in Ethiopia, five in Uganda, two in Djibouti and 291 in Kenya.

The Westgate, Lamu, Garissa University College, and DusitD2 attacks are all examples of attacks of maximum effect, because they garnered Al-Shabaab international headlines and catapulted it back to the centre of debate amongst counterterrorism practitioners and policymakers. This visibility serves to attract the attention of terrorist financiers, potential recruits and allies. As argued by Cannon and Pkalya, Kenya offers an array of convenient targets to Al-Shabaab that result in relevance through the regional and international publicity of propaganda by deed that is usually desired by terrorist groups.

The Westgate, Lamu, Garissa University College, and DusitD2 attacks are all examples of attacks of maximum effect, because they made international headlines and catapulted Al-Shabaab back to the centre of debate…This visibility serves to attract the attention of terrorist financiers, potential recruits and allies.

With the sizeable contingent of Kenyan militants that Al-Shabaab now controls, it is probably a matter of when, not if, Al-Shabaab will stage another attack in the country. In this way, more needs to be done to scale-up counter-terrorism efforts, especially in border security and intelligence gathering, as more support is given to prevention strategies at the communal and individual level so as to counter radicalisation.

Ngala Chome
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Ngala Chome is Doctoral Candidate at the History Department, Durham University. His email is ngala.k.chome@gmail.com.

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Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal

Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.

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Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.

WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.

With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.

However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.

For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.

Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.

There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.

Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.

When the home becomes a battlefield

The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.

“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.

In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.

The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.

The looming mental health crisis

In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.

There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.

Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.

He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.

Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.

The social cost of rising inequality

The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.

Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.

In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.

Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.

Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.

While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.

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My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa

As in other parts of the world colonised by European powers, the politics of skin colour in South Africa have been importantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation.

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My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa
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Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.

After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.

What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?

The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.

As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.

Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.

A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening

For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.

Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.

Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.

Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.

During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.

By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.

Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.

The mercury effect

Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.

By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”

When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.

After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.

In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.

Meanwhile in South Africa

In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.

In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.

South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.

South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.

The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.

By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France
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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

This post is from a new partnership between the African website Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.
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