American national security officials decided the time was ripe to talk to “UK Declassified” about CIA/GSU counterterrorism operations in Kenya (updated 9-6)

On the record Americans in Washington and a key American who is not identified by name or specific agency tell most of the story about the development of the US-Kenyan counterterrorism relationship since the 1998 embassy bombing in a two part series from “UK Declassified”.

Particular focus is on the establishment and operation by the Kenyan police paramilitary General Services Unit (GSU) of a special previously secret CIA-supported unit dedicated to capture and render, if not kill in some situations, high value terrorist targets.

This unit was set up under the Kibaki Administration in 2004 and been kept out of the open source media since.

Here is the story (Part One) published in The Daily Maverick through their partnership with “UK Declassified”. And Part Two.

I cannot imagine that the substance of the story is especially surprising to anyone. In a way it’s a story of the interlocking of two bureaucracies and the making of “alphabet soup”. Whereas most Americans paying attention from outside specific national security roles and most Kenyans would have assumed that the counterterrorism operations discussed involved the ATPU (Anti-Terrorism Police Unit) branch of the Kenya Police Service, as discussed, it turns out they involved the GSU branch. On the American side the bureaucratic distinction is that we have been using in this GSU-support role the CIA, a stand alone branch of the Intelligence Community, rather than one of the units under the military command structure.

The fact that some mistakes would be made and “collateral damage” (such as raiding the wrong house and killing the wrong person) incurred in any Kenya Police Service paramilitary operation is hardly surprising. To the contrary it would be foolish not to expect it and my guess would be that the seeming lower volume or rate of errors in these operations compared to what we see from the GSU and the Kenyan Police Service overall has something to do with the involvement of the CIA.

More generally, however, the thing that I was aware of and concerned about as a temporary duty democracy assistance American NGO worker during the 2007 Kenyan election cycle was that these type of counterterrorism tactics–regardless of the letters in the “alphabet soup” or which utensil used to eat it–caused genuine fear among Kenyan citizens and potential voters.

The highest profile use by the Kibaki Administration of the GSU during my time with the International Republican Institute was the deployment of paramilitary troops to form a perimeter sealing off Uhuru Park in Nairobi in the early weeks of 2008 to prevent protests against Kibaki’s disputed swearing in for a second term from accessing the symbolically important venue. (Contra events ten years later for Raila Odinga’s “people’s president” mock swearing in.). See “Were Americans right to be so fearful of Odinga’s ‘People’s President’ swearing in?“, January 31, 2018.

It seems conventional that you would have some general comment from former Ambassadors Bellamy and Ranneberger for the article on counterterrorism but unusual to have the amount of discussion from the CIA side. I have thoughts about why people spoke up now but they are speculative so I will keep them to myself for the time being. Regardless, it is vitally important that Americans and Kenyans learn from experience, including trial-and-error in facing the challenges of terrorism in the context of laws and policies that place hope in democracy, democratization and the rule of law. So I appreciate the move towards increasing public information both from press and those interviewed.

Conspicuously absent though is any reference to the December 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia with US support to displace the Islamic Courts Union from Mogadishu and restore the Transitional Federal Government with related operations by the Kenyan military. This kicked-off the current round of the ongoing war in Somalia, gave rise to the separation of al-Shabaab as an al-Queda affiliate operating a territory-controlling jihadist insurgency in Somalia as well as operator of persistent regional terrorist attacks over the years.

See my post from June, 2018 and articles and posts discussed therein for U.S. support for the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, Kenyan engagement, and the consequences:

More context: what happened between Fall 2006 and Spring 2007 that might have changed State Department priorities on democratic reform in Kenya and Kibaki’s re-election?

Kenya USAID documents show policy shift on Kibaki from 2006 to 2007 election

Kenyans going for water in Eastern Province with jerry cans on red dirt

Al-Shabaab Manda Bay attack investigation update from AFRICOM

AFRICOM public affairs has released today an update on the investigation of the January 5 al-Shabaab attack at Kenya’s Manda Bay and US air operations:

U.S. Africa Command continues to investigate the Jan. 5 attack on the Kenyan Defense Force Military Base in Manda Bay, Kenya, that killed U.S. Army Spc. Henry J. Mayfield, Jr., and two U.S. contractors, Mr. Bruce Triplett and Mr. Dustin Harrison.

The tragic loss of these brave Americans and the damage and destruction to aircraft demonstrates the enemy achieved a degree of success in its attack. However, despite public reports, an initial assessment indicates that a timely and effective response to the attack reduced the number of casualties and eliminated the potential for further damage.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 5, al-Shabaab initiated mortar fire on the Kenyan Defense Force installation and Camp Simba, while simultaneously assaulting the airfield. U.S. forces are primarily located at Camp Simba, about one mile from the airfield. Shortly after the attack began, U.S. forces at Camp Simba quickly responded and actively counterattacked the enemy at the airfield.

U.S. forces and Kenyan Defense Forces repelled the attack, killing five al-Shabaab terrorists with no additional losses to U.S. or Kenyan personnel. While numbers are still being verified, it is estimated that several dozen al-Shabaab fighters were repelled. Because of the size of the Kenyan base, clearance and security operations continued for several more hours to ensure the entire base was secure.

In Kenya, U.S. forces are primarily responsible for training Kenyan forces, sharing intelligence, and personnel recovery. There are fewer than 350 Department of Defense personnel in Kenya.

“The attack at Manda Bay demonstrates that al-Shabaab remains a dangerous and capable enemy,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, U.S. Africa Command commander. “They are a menace to the people of East Africa and U.S. national interests there and their sights are set on eventually attacking the U.S. homeland. It is important that we continue to pursue al-Shabaab and prevent their vision from becoming a reality.”

Since 2010, al-Shabaab has killed hundreds of innocent people outside the borders of Somalia.

Immediately following the Jan. 5 attack, U.S. Africa Command sent senior leaders to inspect the site and speak with on-scene leaders and troops to assess any immediate actions required. Simultaneously, the command launched a senior-leader-led Army 15-6 investigation. The investigation team is looking into the facts and circumstances surrounding the attack. The full findings of the investigation will be released following family and Department of Defense notification.

Increased force protection measures have been put into place and U.S. Africa Command will pursue the attackers until they are brought to justice.

###

This follows the New York Times report yesterday that got widespread attention and coverage in the Kenyan media: “Chaos as Militants Overran Kenyan Airfield, Killing Three Americans“.

The performance of the Kenyan security forces during and after the battle frustrated American officials. At one point, the Kenyans announced that they had captured six of the attackers, but they all turned out to be bystanders and were released.

There are about 200 American soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines, as well as about 100 Pentagon civilian employees and contractors, in Kenya helping train and assist local forces. A large majority of them work at Manda Bay, according to military officials. But there were not enough Americans to stand perimeter security on the airfield, one Defense Department official said.

American forces have used Manda Bay for years. Special Operations units — including Green Berets, Navy SEALs and, more recently, Marine Raiders — have helped train and advise Kenyan Rangers there.

See “101st Airborne deployed to Manda Bay after al-Shabab attack” today from Military Times.

Helpful reading on why al-Shabaab has gained support in Kenya – and remembering Garissa University attack (updated)

UPDATE April 4: A timely new report came out today on this topic from the International Crisis Group, “The Hidden Cost of al-Shabaab’s Campaign in North-eastern Kenya.”

To follow up on my last post addressing U.S. strategy in the war with al-Shabaab in Somalia, here is a helpful March article from TRT World magazine on “Why is al-Shabaab making inroads in Kenya?

Also recommended is a January report to the UK Parliament “The Threat of al-Shabaab in Kenya: the Kenyan Government’s Counterterrorism Approach“.

And a January overview from Ilya Gridneff in World Politics Review, Despite Reforms Across the Horn of Africa, al-Shabab Continues a Deadly Campaign“.

And relatedly, today Nairobi’s Star features a Central Bank of Kenya report that “51% of Kenyans Live Hand-to-Mouth” (up from 34.3% in 2016).

The attack on Garissa University killing 147 Kenyans, primarily Christian students, was four years ago this week. It is sad to recognize the degree to which this type of threat may have grown in some important respects rather than reduced since that time.

USIP issues special report on “Community Policing and Violent Extremism in Tanzania”

Excerpts From Lillian Dang, “Community Policing and Violent Extremisn in Tanzania” USIP Special Report no. 442, March 2019

ASSESSMENT OF COMMUNITY POLICING IN PRACTICE

The strengths include the expansion of police presence in local communities, the establishment of regular communication channels between police and local government leaders, and official endorsement of the establishment of civilian security groups. Unfortunately, the community policing approach has been stunted by a lack of resources, inconsistent application, and an overemphasis on intelligence gathering.

Rather than use the [Tanzanian Police Force] TPF’s community policing structure as a means of building trust between police and citizens and improving the delivery of policing services to local communities, community policing in practice focuses primarily on intelligence gathering from local communities.

Local communities view the police ambivalently—as a provider of security but also as a driver of insecurity. A common theme across the three regions was a lack of trust in police among local communities due to police corruption, abuse of authority, and excessive use of force. . . . CSO representatives appear to have more positive working relationships with the police than the general public because of their interest in solving the same problems.

——–

Reporting from regional workshops hosted by local CSOs with communities and with local police

ZANZIBAR

Zanzibar is a challenging environment for an Islamist VEO because of the comparatively high level of scrutiny by community members to outside actors, en- trenched and highly competitive political parties, and well-established Muslim groups and clerics. For example, the Office of the Mufti in Zanzibar has been particularly concerned with the arrival of Salafist preachers since 2016 on the islands, and the propagation of what is viewed as an extremist—and potentially competitive—interpretation of Islam. The Office of the Mufti is regulating madrassa teachers and curricula to prevent the spread of extremist religious teaching. Further, while political competition in Zanzibar (and Tanzania more generally) has resulted in violence, it continues to provide an agreed-upon means for individuals to gain and wield power. Within this environment, it would be difficult for an Islamist VEO to recruit from among the population, particularly for high-level operators, most of whom are likely already devoted to one of the political parties.

TANGA

Bordering Kenya to the north, with a vast eastern coastline, the Tanga Region is a transit point for transnational narcotic trafficking, illegal migration, and human trafficking. According to community stakeholders, economic motivations related to poverty, family breakdown, homelessness, drug dependency, and unemployment push young men into illicit smuggling activities, including drug trafficking within the country. heroin addiction among the youth population is a major driver of criminality. Family breakdown and conflicts related to land are the other major sources of insecurity.

Violent extremism was a more prominent theme in the Tanga workshops and interviews than in the Zanzibar meetings.

Notwithstanding concerns about violent extremism, community stakeholders still ranked drug use, family breakdowns, and land conflicts above violent extremism as the major drivers of insecurity in Tanga. Despite the low priority assigned to violent extremism by community stakeholders, the assessment team found the presence of violent extremism risks to be more pronounced in Tanga than in Zanzibar or Morogoro. . . .

In contrast to Zanzibar’s Muslim community, where the close monitoring of outside actors helps to identify and isolate Islamist VEOs before they take root, Tanga may be less resilient to this form of violent extremism. As a porous border region, Tanga is vulnerable to the undetected entrance of new actors and groups, including potential VEOs. With a mixed Christian and Muslim population, there is no overarching religious institution that is regulating the entrance and ac- tivities of religious-based . . . . Although interfaith dialogues have helped ease interreligious tensions that have flared between Muslim and Christian communities in Tanga in recent years, mainstream Christian and Muslim leaders have limited influence among fundamentalist religious groups, some of whom have been associated with violence. Given these factors, Tanga is a region more vulnerable to Islamist VEOs than the neighboring islands of Zanzibar.

MOROGORO

In the inland Morogoro Region, stakeholders from local communities and police representatives agreed that land conflicts are the major driver of violence and insecurity.

Corrupt local government leaders contribute to land conflicts by taking bribes to favor one party over another in disputes and to facilitate land usurpation by wealthy and well-connected investors. A number of community stakeholders cited corruption in ward land tribunals as a driver of conflict.

Interviews conducted outside of the workshop did identify violent extremism risks, however. . . . These risks were associated with the training in weapons, explosives, and martial arts that boys and young men receive in mosques and madrassas. Religious leaders also discussed potential recruitment by unknown VEOs inside some mosques of the Ansār Sunna. One Muslim community leader stated that a group he referred to pejoratively as “al-Shabaab” supports violent jihad and recruits from Ansār Sunna mosques. However, according to another Muslim leader when discussing the group in the same interview, “They have select mosques that they go to. It depends on the leaders of the mosque. They don’t disclose their mission.” The use of the term “al-Shabaab” suggests that the local community sees the group as associated with violent extremism rather than a mainstream political agenda.

A police representative confirmed these views, stating that terrorism suspects have been detected in Morogoro, although such information is not disclosed to the public. . . . A recent report by the International Crisis Group identified Morogoro as a region where militants have reportedly planted sleeper cells.

It is difficult to determine the risk of violent extremism in Morogoro given the hesitancy of community stakeholders and police representatives to discuss matters pertaining to violent extremism and terrorism openly. Even so, community stakeholders seem not to be aware of violent extremism risks; their major security concerns are quite different, focusing on land conflicts, criminality, and gender-based violence.

The New York Times on Kenya: working through my reaction to the mess they have made on the photograph of terror victims at a time of grief

1. I cannot and have not defended New York Times’ use of the particular photograph of victims that has angered Kenyans.

Using that photo, especially while the attack was ongoing, was bad judgment in a number of respects that have been well explained by others.

2. My personal inclination from my own circumstances is usually to be somewhat defensive of the Times when they get attacked . . .

. . . as they frequently do, not because they are not regularly frustrating and imperfect but because they have been and continue to be a critical part of the wider media firmament in the United States. And newspaper journalism in the United States is suffering to our detriment and all professional news reporting is contested in our Trump era. (More about this later).

3. But, apologies are easy.

I understand that if the Times turned over editorial judgment to social media responders they would quickly be lost in the internet sea and cease to exist or be snatched up by a hedge fund and/or an ideologically motivated billionaire and/or have to publish listicles and soft porn to survive. Likewise they can never willingly let themselves be bullied by authoritarian governments so the grandstanding demands and threats from the Media Council of Kenya make the situation harder to address constructively and are not in well considered good faith in my opinion.  But apologies are still easy. (And surely taking down or swapping out the one photograph would be a “correction” not some actual editorial diversion.)

4. Thus, I come around to seeing and feeling a humility and empathy problem.

Especially as time has gone by. The Times is not the Daily Mail nor The Sun and does not deserve to be the poster child for historical imperialism/colonialism devaluing black and brown bodies even if it has its own limitations and faults. But the Times made a mistake here and it was unforced and not anyone else’s fault. The tone deaf lack of responsiveness makes me more appreciative of the perspectives that I have picked up from friends in academia and journalism and other fields over the years that are more critical of the Times.

5. The individual reporter did nothing substantively professionally wrong.

The complaint is with the photo placed by the editors in New York not with the reporter’s story. The photo was by a Kenyan photographer through the Associated Press. So it is simply not her fault. In the moment of anguish with the attack it seems that she received a lot of the grief associated with this situation which was not her doing or in control. Having arrived at an understanding of the facts, there is apparently still a broad sentiment among many Kenyans, including many that I admire and respect, to deport her for being insensitive and seemingly a bit flip in responding. In other words, to me more of a moral question as to whether we think from Twitter that she has the personal traits we approve of as opposed to her actual writing.

Keep in mind that she is a corporate employee presumably. Without knowing the details of her individual situation with the Times, in general terms most American employees are subject to being fired at will, for any reason or no reason, without any legal right to severance as in Kenya, much less “due process”. I am a corporate lawyer [my experience in the world of Kenyan media and politics (and especially the New York Times) that has been the basis for this blog was “on leave” from that corporate career] so I know something about how things work. For a remote employee to say unilaterally to the public on social media that her bosses back in New York screwed up something that is in their job description and discretion and not hers is problematic.

The reporter/correspondent is supposed to say “I am sorry but I personally think my bosses have made a terrible mistake with the company product back in New York”? I do not know what I would have done in her shoes, and I can sit back at home and imagine doing better but realistically she was in a losing position.

I had a slightly analogous situation as an NGO employee in Kenya when my bosses back in Washington put out a press statement that the exit poll I supervised in the 2007 election showing an opposition win was “invalid”. I was in a lose/lose situation on my own in Nairobi. My threading of the needle in dealing with that situation has never been fully satisfactory to anyone so far as I know but not fully “toeing the line” has been life changing in some respects. I objected strenuously in private. In public when I was pressed by a reporter for Nairobi’s Star on whether the statement from Washington “reflected my personal opinion” I explained that “it was’t intended to reflect my personal opinion”–no surprise that the reporting when it hit the paper was that I had said that it “did not reflect” my own opinion. When it was faxed to Washington the president of my organization “hit the roof” per a phone call from my boss who had heard it from him. After I explained the exact choice of words, she ran interference for me and got him “calmed down” on the basis that I had been “misquoted”. Of course I knew when the reporter called me that I was likely to get get fired for diverging from my superiors and I did not have an opportunity to go ask my wife and kids.

I did some things privately during the interval to keep the exit poll from “going away” before it was ultimately released publicly in July but that was closely held and I have never written about that part of the story yet.

It was only post-employment that I felt that I could publicly express my own opinions related to my work.  Ultimately I was quoted from published interviews in The Nation magazine and The New York Times itself (and written about by Kenyan media and and The Weekly Standard and RedState.com without being contaced or interviewed).

Fortunately, my temporary duty in NGO-world was ending in a few weeks anyway. My law job was waiting for me at home. I decided not to resign to keep the office together and I did not get fired. But I was on a short leash until my return to the States and I avoided being out and about or meeting politicians so I would not have to be chose between being openly insubordinate or dishonest. I am grateful that I had some room to maneuver in that pre-social media era.

7. Where do my Kenyan friends want this to end up?

Is “the Kenya we want” one in which foreign reporters for foreign newspapers get deported because they are perceived to be insensitive on social media? What are the ramifications of that? Just reporters? Etc.

Remember that the Times of London correspondent was detained at the airport and expelled by all appearances because he was investigating the Eurobond mysteries. No one filled those shoes. You are still on the hook for the debt and it turns out there seems to have been a secret problem with the SGR financing from 2014 that you are just reading about now.

This deserves to be reflected on and discussed–perhaps mediated–offline and in person, with a little space from the anguish of this attack, and this photo.

6. The peak of this for me is someone on Twitter who wanted to deport the photographer.

Fortunately the Courts in Kenya have now clearly and explicitly ruled against the Executive Branch’s power to deport a Kenyan in the Miguna Miguna cases. We all know the application of the law to the actions of Executive Branch is difficult and often contested as a matter of power rather than right–here in the United States also–so I think Kenyans would be wise to think carefully on this.

A Chaotic Kenya Vote and a Secret US Exit Poll in New York Times

Should the United States offer to replace Ugandan and Burundian troops in AMISOM?

Hargeysa Somaliland Gate

This is in the nature of a “thought experiment” rather than an actual suggestion at this point, but here goes rough sketch of the basic points:

1) We all recognize–whether we are willing to publicly admit it–that Somalia is in a “permanent” war state although progress has been made from the lowest ebbs over the years. Somalia is like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen in the sense that it is a place in which perpetual fighting appears indefinitely sustainable pending some major change.

2) The current phase of the civil war in Somalia started in December 2006 with a full scale invasion by Ethiopia, with US support, at the invitation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), to displace the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) with a re-instated TFG. In early 2007 this gave way to the multilateral AMISOM “peace-keeping” military force of surplus Subsaharan African national troops seconded by their governments. Funding came from the EU and UN, passed through the African Union.

3) As we approach the 12th anniversary of the Ethiopian invasion with the Somali Federal Government (SFG) having significant influence but not consolidated military or civilian control of the country, we all know that there is no immediate prospect of a complete military defeat of Al Shabaab, the al Queda affiliate that coalesced in the breakdown of the ICU in the fighting in 2006-07. Al Shabaab at present no longer controls any major cities, following the Kenyan-led assault on Kismayo in 2012, but has sustaining financial support and territory, and seems to have wider influence in Kenyan territory in particular than in the past. Likewise the latest International Crisis Group report indicates increased influence in Tanzania.

4) Somalia has not had a clearly established national government since 1991– presumably before most of the foot soldiers on any of the sides were born.

5) Ugandan and Burundian troops have been provided to AMISOM by Museveni and Nkrurunziza, the “elected dictators” of Uganda and Burundi, respectively. Under this arrangement the United States provides training and support, and a patina of international legitimacy, to forces under the command of Musveni and Nkurunziza and they in turn loan out on a fully reimbursed basis some of those forces to the EU and UN through the AU.

6) Conceptually, the advantage to the United States from this arrangement, as I once heard it put a few years ago from a military perspective, is “better them than us.” The advantage to Museveni and Nkurunziza is leverage vis-a-vis the United States, the EU, the UK, the UN and the AU. For the AU the arrangement provides at no cost superficial prestige and legitimacy.

7) The disadvantage for the United States is that it also gives Museveni and Nkurunziza superficial prestige and legitimacy in spite of their repudiation of democratic values. It also gives a hint of reverse leverage in the relationship. Rwandan strongman Kagame has explicitly tried to exploit his dispensation of surplus troops to the UN mission in Darfur to ulterior advantage, for an example of the implications. This creates complications and risks in our relationships in East and Central Africa, whatever the perceived savings in regard to the Horn and Somalia.

8) Museveni and Nkurunziza do not have the mitigating factors on their side that buy indulgence for Kagame, whether legitimately or not. Kagame assuages our feelings of guilt or exposure to embarrassment for not taking action to try to stop the genocide in 1994 during the Rwandan civil war, by operating a micro-model of repressive developmentalism in tiny Rwanda. Those equities are simply not in play for Museveni or Nkurunziza who have chosen to become aggressively repressive anyway. Thus U.S. military partnership and EU funding Uganda and Burundi arguably become nakedly hypocritical and opportunistic.

9) Over the years of the fighting in Somalia the United States has significantly drawn down its forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We have now significantly increased our overall defense budget. It would seem that direct deployment of United States military personnel for the type of “peacekeeping” fighting engaged in by Ugandan and Burundian forces would be relatively easier now than in the earlier years if this iteration of the war in Somalia.

10) Meanwhile, questions have continued to grow about the sustainability of Museveni’s repressive government as he has continued to accelerate past the off ramps for peaceful transition. Thus, the quandary for the United States in using his forces in support of notionally democratic nation building outside the country while the idea of democratic nation building recedes within Uganda itself.

“Another Fine Mess” in Uganda? Time to read Helen Epstein on “America, Uganda, and the War on Terror” if you haven’t yet

I first bought a copy of “Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror“, by Helen Epstein, then “hot off the press” as a “sizzling indictment” of our policy in Uganda while evacuated to the Florida Panhandle from hurricane Maria last year.

Helen Epstein Uganda Another Fine Mess

This year in Northeast Florida were have missed Florence but are watching our neighbors in the Carolinas with concern. Meanwhile our neighbors in Uganda are suddenly on the radar screen in a heightened way.  Museveni’s political repression has struck an international nerve through the popular musician turned Member of Parliament and opposition by-election campaigner Bobi Wine.

See “Ugandan politician confronts diplomat over torture allegation” from VOA Africa.

Earlier this week Bobi Wine agreed to be represented pro bono in Washington by the Vanguard Africa Group.

Epstein’s book from the Columbia Global Reports series is a quick read (and inexpensive) so there is really no excuse to duck it if you are an American concerned about Uganda. Helen Epstein is an American with “skin in the game” in Uganda. She has lived there and worked with the failing health systems — her “active voice” as a critic comes not from the abstract but the specific. You do not have to agree with her about everything, or think she has figured out all our governmental secrets or inside-the-beltway motivations, but you would be foolish not to take her seriously and account for what she has to say.

Update: let me add here a couple of key blurbs for Epstein’s book from other writers who I have relied on and who will be well familiar to readers here:

William Easterly: “As her new book reveals, Helen Epstein is an eloquent advocate of human rights and democracy for Africans, as well as a courageous critic of how U.S. aid supports oppressive dictators like Yoweri Museveni in Uganda.”

Michela Wrong: “For decades, Western policy-makers have hailed Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni as a benign autocrat, a charming African Bismarck and trusted partner in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Another Fine Mess reveals a far darker side to this key African ally, while exposing the cynicism at the heart of American policy in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. This gripping, iconoclastic, angry book raises a host of uncomfortable questions.”

I want to note that Epstein highlights my old friend the late Joel Barkan’s investigation of Uganda’s economic issues for the World Bank.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to discuss this work with Joel a few years ago. Joel also prepared a prescient warning for American policy makers back in 2011 at CSIS of the risk of instability in Uganda with Museveni’s advancing age, elimination of term limits and need to transition.

[Note: Some of my Washington friends took a bit of umbrage about some of Helen’s real time reportage on Kenya’s last election–fine. If we were more transparent we would not risk being misunderstood; I was not in Kenya for the 2017 vote and at the end of the day we will have to see what the record shows. In that regard I am still working on 2007 and 2013. Uganda is Epstein’s lived experience in a different way.]

Barack Obama, son of American anthropologist, retired President USA, stops in Kenya on way to South Africa after safari

Ten years after 2008 campaign, the “Birthers” have won for now in the U.S., but Obama remains a positive symbol with time for another act:

Former President Obama stopped in Kenya on his way to South Africa, his third visit to Kenya since arriving on the national political scene in the United States in 2004 as an Illinois state legislator through a speech at the Democratic Convention that nominated John Kerry to challenge the re-election of George W. Bush.

It is now ten years since I returned to the United States with my family from our year-long East Africa democracy assistance sojourn in Nairobi in the wake of the failed 2007 election, the post-election violence, and February 28 “peace deal”. The day we flew out of JKIA for Amsterdam en route to Atlanta on the way home to Mississippi I was first exposed to the “birther” conspiracy theory through a front page story in the Daily Nation.

Many may not remember fully now, but recognize that in its inception the “birther” conspiracy theory was not just the idea that then-Senator Obama was secretly born in Kenya, and secretly smuggled into the United States as an infant, and thus not technically eligible to be elected President. It also fit into the context of the claims that Obama was involved as a U.S. Senator from Illinois in 2007 in a conspiracy with Raila Odinga to steal Kenya’s election on behalf of Muslims, with killing of Christians and embellished from there into a narrative that rather than a loyal American Obama was essentially on the side of al-Queda and the global jihad to establish a sharia-enforcing caliphate. That Obama was in essence on the other side of the war being fought by Americans in the “surge” led by Bush and General Petraeus in Iraq as well as the fundamental underlying values of our democratic republic and Western democracy in general.

The conspiracy theories about the 2007 Kenyan election faded somewhat over time–partly because of the peace deal that put Odinga in Kibaki’s government as Prime Minister where he continued to be friendly to the West and partly because it became clearer that the election was stolen by Kibaki’s side which controlled the ECK (and not by the opposition which didn’t). Reports at the time from the American right at the Heritage Foundation think tank and National Review magazine (“Inside Kenya’s clumsily rigged election” Jan 4, 2008 National Review Online) noting the theft of the election helped American conservatives who cared about facts avoid getting sucked into nonsense about a Luo jihad involving “tribesman” Obama and “cousin” Raila.

While there remain a few holdouts who claim that “we can’t know” who won in Kenya’s 2007 election, they seem to be pretty well limited to personally interested parties at this point with the release of the State Department cables showing that our Ambassador Ranneberger himself saw tallies being changed at the ECK and claimed to have encouraged the late ECK Chairman Samuel Kivuitu to withstand the pressure to declare Kibaki the winner anyway, even though Ranneberger knew that the Chairman had no way to control the Committee which was thoroughly stacked by Kibaki in the weeks and months before the election.

Once it is recognized that the vote tallies were actually changed at the ECK, Americans–most especially rock-ribbed traditional stalwarts attracted to “the Tea Party” and/or Donald Trump’s “neopatriotism”–will understand that Kenyans had a duty not just a right to protest the 2007 election. Americans would not trust biometric voter registration (or tolerate secret voter lists) but most certainly the traditional American narrative would demand that we march on our county courthouses if our votes were simply changed by our election officials. Ranneberger’s pre-election cables to Washington made clear that as of that time, the Kenyan courts were not independent and would provide no recourse so that voters would be forced to go to the streets if there was fraud that became known.

Once you legitimize protesting the actions of the ECK, and recognize that the largest category of deaths in the Post Election Violence, per the Waki Commission, were those shot by Kibaki’s security forces, and the largest number that were identifiable by tribe were Luo, then the whole notion of some extraneous evil conspiracy somehow involving Obama and the global jihad as the reason for the post election violence becomes that much more irrational. The portion of violence in the Rift Valley that then-Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer insisted on calling “ethnic cleansing” in a January 2008 visit (a label not adopted in Washington) was conducted by Kalenjin militia in the pattern employed by KANU in 1992 and 1997. KANU was a religiously diverse secular party that sought to maintain single-party hegemony through compliant cadres among all major tribes and religious groupings in accordance with its political needs. No suggestion that Moi, who personally identified as a Protestant Christian, was a secret Muslim jihadi even though the victims may have been mostly Christians.

The International Republican Institute/University of California, San Diego exit poll funded by USAID (the one showing an Odinga presidential win by roughly six points that was embargoed for six months) gave more evidence in the details that the 2007 election contest was driven, as normal in Kenyan, by tribal rather than religious alignment with Odinga shown as winning a majority of self-identified Christians and of Muslims (although the margin was greater among Muslims). On the other hand, there was a “gender gap” with women favoring Kibaki and men Odinga.

It may also seem hard to remember now but by January 2009 Obama was sworn in to a wave of good feeling with high approval numbers. He had campaigned as a pragmatic moderate Democrat who was against dumb wars and only for smart ones, a Christian who grew up with limited religion who was popular with the irreligious left, the Christian left and made some real inroads courting what we call “Evangelicals” who were not part of the more politicized harder “Religious Right”. The inaugural celebrations seemed to suggest some real healing from the cultural rifts from “the Sixties” and “Vietnam” that featured so prominently in presidential campaigns throughout my lifetime, as well as a milestone to show that we had come so far in overcoming racial prejudice in the post-Civil Rights era that black/white racial issues were no longer much a part of those cultural rifts. Maybe we had more in common than our political leaders had been telling us since the rise of Fox News and the Bill Clinton impeachment saga; maybe this president could be a “uniter not a divider” where his predecessor had failed. In part this failure was because the Bush political operation ended up pulling a “bait-and-switch” by mobilizing gullible church networks to support the invasion of Iraq for regime change using a claimed causus belli of active chemical/biological and nuclear weapons programs then firing up the culture wars further to drive turnout to get re-elected over John Kerry. This was a bad error of moral judgment that has continued to reverberate through American politics.

Kerry was certainly a Yankee patrician from “central casting” — as Kenyans well know from the 2017 election — but was unquestionably accurate in pointing out in debate with Bush that we had gotten “stuck in Iraq”. Of course Kerry was too polite, patrician and/or patriotic to go for the jugular and trash Bush for Iraq the the way Donald Trump did in his 2016 campaign.

For saying that we were “stuck in Iraq” Kerry got pilloried as “unpatriotic” aside from the “Swift Boat” sliming he got over his military service in Vietnam–conveniently not a problem for Clinton, Bush, Cheney or Trump who all managed in various ways not to get sent, and unlike Kerry, did not volunteer to actually go to Vietnam. Nonetheless, the unhealed cultural wounds were still such almost 30 years after the fall of Saigon that Vietnam was a winner for Bush over Kerry in spite of Iraq.

Part of the reason that Obama took office with a waive of good feeling and better numbers than he had during the election was that McCain declined to play along with trashing Obama in the darker ways and treated him as a legitimate political adversary. It was good for the country and gave Obama a fair start in office.

“Birtherism,” though, in spite of McCain’s choice, became an enduring American movement which has had a profound effect on our politics and transformed the Republican Party with which I had been involved for much of my life.

Ultimately, the Birther Movement became a tool for Donald Trump as an outsider to gain “free media” and attention and admiration with those who were otherwise profoundly afraid of or opposed to the Obama presidency.

People like John McCain and George W. Bush or his family members in politics, whatever their faults and mistakes on policy choices (even the really big one, invading Iraq, which McCain acknowledges in his latest book, The Restless Wave) were too experienced, too educated, and too well advised to believe craziness about Obama being secretly smuggled into the U.S. as a Kenyan child (although the McCain campaign did check it out to make sure as did the McClatchy newspaper chain) and were morally constrained, in my judgment at least, from deliberately lying about it to hurt Obama. If you cannot buy that it was morals, at least we can agree that they were restrained by a judgment that it was better politics to stay out of that gutter. Hillary Clinton also stayed away (even if one credits the report that her adviser Sidney Blumenthal triggered the McClatchy review to make sure their was nothing to it).

Donald Trump was not similarly constrained and his hectoring of Obama put him in the front row of politics in America. He shared headlines with Obama even as Osama bin-Laden was being killed by the Navy under Obama’s command. Not one to accept defeat in an argument by being proven factually wrong, in this case by the release of Obama’s long form Hawaii birth certificate, Trump bided his time and cranked the Movement back up for his presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, discarding it once he had seized the agenda and the Republican Party and the specific “birther” claim was no longer useful to him.

It has been a bit surreal for me to see this happen. Educated middle class Americans of my generation (Obama’s essentially) have a lot to answer for in our complacency I am afraid. Our democratic republic requires more attention and effort than we have delivered in recent years whatever our party or policy preferences.

Fortunately, just as Obama himself has, we hope, time for other acts in his public life as an American after elective politics, the Trump presidency too shall pass and the Birther Movement will be a strange chapter in political history books. It will leave scars and I expect that Trump will be willing to use other lies for domestic advantage that will manipulate gullible people and torque emotions on difficult and divisive social matters. But in the longer term I think we will rise to the occasion and get to a better range of equilibrium. We have significant long term challenges on poverty, education, healthcare and economic mobility and government debt that have been building up during our protracted wartime, but I think Americans getting more engaged and rolling up our sleeves to work on solutions.

Trump as an individual is something of a fluke. Most of the people who voted for him have little in common with him really. I know this because they are my peers, my extended family and friends to a great extent. He lost the national popular vote in a low turnout election. Trump won in large part because neither Obama nor the Clintons succeeded in building a Democratic Party that was seriously competitive in much of the country.

The big difference as of now is that Trump as president in our system still has far less power than the president in any of the East African countries. He will leave office at by the end of his lawful first term or his second if re-elected.

On balance, I think that we will see American policy in its relations with Kenya in the Trump years to continue to be largely a continuation of that under Obama, as reflected in the American approach to supporting both the 2013 election with John Kerry as Secretary of State and 2017 with Kerry as chief election observer and Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, with Bob Godec as “our man in Kenya” throughout. Just as Obama’s relationship with Kenya in its policy aspects was primarily a continuation of the approach under George W. Bush.

There have been a few major inflection points in the American/Kenyan relationship in the last twenty years, but most have not been specific to whoever was president in either Washington or Nairobi.

The first,of course, was the al-Queda Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, kicking off the ongoing conflict between the U.S. and Kenya against various Islamist “violent extremists”. As reflected in the Mombasa rocket attack, the USS Cole bombing, the bombing in Kampala, the various attacks in Kenya, most notoriously the Westgate Mall and Garissa University killings, a persistent understood risk of terrorist incidents have been a regional “fact of life” since. For most Kenyans who are not well secured in their daily bread, and face many bigger daily risks of violent death, terrorism is not quite so central as is to Americans, but has still inevitably shaped both sides of the relationship over the last two decades. And in this context, after 9/11 and our ensuing land wars in South Asia, with the establishment of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa base in Djibouti Kenya resumed its regional security role along the lines established in the 1970s and 80s when the United States was fighting the Cold War and Kenyatta and Moi wanted protection from Idi Amin and Siad Barre and the kind of relationship that would be useful to them in avoiding disruption to their domestic rule.

The next inflection point, albeit of lesser magnitude from an American standpoint, was the retirement of Moi and the transition to NARC and Kibaki.

Next was the demise of NARC and the failure of constitutional reform with the 2005 referendum. Relatedly the Anglo Leasing scandal showed security and counter-terrorism were for sale at high levels along with the baseline of corruption in the police and security services that let terrorists move about and in and out of the country. The Artur Brothers and the Standard flamboyantly highlighted the rot.

Next and finally was the start of the war in Somalia to save and reinstate the Transitional Federal Government and oust the ICU in December 2006.

Since that time the United States Government has continued to have and support all our other existing priorities in Kenya such as lifesaving humanitarian health support through PEPFAR and other lower profile programs, food assistance and small farm agricultural support, along with supporting all sorts of philanthropic type programs and the somewhat more controversial “big development” initiatives like Power Africa, frequently in cooperation with other donors.

In recent years we also started devoted more governmental focus to promoting international private financial investment, such as the 2015 U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation investment in the Dubai-based Abraaj Growth Markets Health Fund, L.P., that has been active in the Nairobi private healthcare market prior to recently entering liquidation under circumstances being investigated.

Nonetheless, in the meantime we have been at war in a country with a huge border with Kenya. A country during during much of these last 11 1/2 years which has been too dangerous to support a full diplomatic and aid presence and has thus had those parts of the effort supported from Kenya, as well as a smaller role for Kenya as a host for some U.S. defense forces in addition to those at our base in Djibouti. And from reading the newspapers back in the day and a few books it is apparent that Kenya provided some military support for the invasion by the Ethiopian military at the time to contain potential spread of terrorism.

And in 2011, during Kibaki’s second term, with the support of Prime Minister Odinga, Kenya entered the war directly and formally in its own right.

Roughly nine months later the Kenya Defense Forces were admitted into the AU’s AMISOM peacekeeping collaboration, allowing for financial reimbursement through the Western donors, and eventually drove al-Shabaab, now formally asserting affiliation with al Queda, out of their previous position of direct control of the port at Kismayo (not to say that al Shabaab did not continue to apparently benefit from the illicit charcoal and sugar trade through the port).

A few months before the Ethiopians were invited to restore the TFG in Mogadishu, our Ambassador Bellamy finished his service and Ambassador Ranneberger was similarly appointed by President Bush from the Foreign Service. Within a few months after the start of the war Ranneberger sent a cable to Washington explaining that his approach for “achieving U.S. objectives in Kenya’s elections” was to stay quiet on the debates on constitutional reform and election reform and “build capital” with the incumbent. With the perturbation of the 2008 crisis and the intervention for constitutional reform up through 2010, this has remained the baseline beat of our relationship over the years.

Will the recent moves by Kenya’s dominant new Jubilee Party to align with Communist Party of China structures and philosophy to accompany its huge borrowings from the Chinese State cause any serious rethink in Washington? I have no idea, but it certainly does not seem to have captured any particular place in the priorities of either the retired President Obama or current President Trump.

“Six Years An Ambassador” : Godec’s Kenya valedictory with Macharia Gaitho

Macharia Gaitho seems to have been of late the designated Kenyan columnist to convey certain background perspectives from the American Embassy.  His April 8 Sunday Nation column provides in interview form a review by outgoing Ambassador Godec of his tenure and the position of the State Department at present.

For me the primary “takeaway” is, as the Nation headlined, the continued/renewed statement of the need for “national dialogue”. The issues were apparent from the 2017 election going back to the 2007-08 election. The “handshake” of a month ago is said to open an opportunity for that dialogue. Likewise the U.S. position is reiterated on the status of the October 26 election and Kenyatta as legitimate per the IEBC and Supreme Court as the U.S. sees it.

I have not met Godec and I really do not have an opinion about him personally. I am not able to say, with the late American humorist Will Rogers, that “I never met a man I didn’t like” but I try to be able to say “I never dislike a man that I’ve never met.”

What makes me sad is that Godec as the Ambassador has been controversial and drawn more anger as well as more disappointment from many Kenyans than I have seen in the past.

Some of the heat would fall on the shoulders of anyone who was the voice of the controversial policies from Washington. Some of it reflects more specifically the reasons that “national dialogue” is needed: the 2008 “peace deal” got only perhaps half-executed and a lot of Kenyans are unenthused as they should be about getting the short end of the stick over the past ten years from their own government. As a “friend” of the Government of Kenya we naturally find ourselves with some “guilt by association” from the Kenyan public. And of course some of it is the behind the scenes stuff that we Americans back home have to hope to evaluate, someday, from the media or private conversations with insiders or the Freedom of Information Act, if ever.

Godec was candid enough to acknowledge that “peace” was prioritized first as a “must” in United States foreign policy in regard to Kenyan elections as but noted that we continued to also support other equities of justice and fairness. For instance, we support  allowing civil society freedom to operate. Nothing was said however to indicate we ourselves need to take a fresh look at our own role in supporting the election mechanisms or our role in supporting reform and transparency out of our own experience in these last three Kenyan election cycles.

It perhaps goes without saying that we no longer mention any notion or prospect of justice for the victims of the 2007-08 post election violence. (Or pre-election 2013 for that matter.) That was something we always used to talk about.

Ambassador Godec noted that his biggest regret was the ongoing security situation as reflected in the Westgate and Garissa University attacks. I assume we are not waiting for those reports from the Government of Kenya on those attacks that Kenyans have been waiting on. (Of course both Kenya and the United States remain at war in Somalia as we were when the Ambassador arrived as Charge in 2012.)

The biggest thing that really struck me from Ambassador Godec’s interview was that there are now 28,000 Americans living in Kenya. More people have been realizing what a great place to live Kenya can be if you are an American, as I can attest. I hope that’s a good thing.

I also hope the Ambassador will sit down with The Elephant as a newer Kenyan publication that is able to generate more depth on current controversies than the big media groups usually feel able.

Meanwhile, Uganda is reported “sliding into crisis”

With attention focused on Mugabe’s capitulation to the military and his erstwhile ZANU-PF cronies in Zimbabwe, and the accompanying exuberant popular optimism, the Crisis Group released its latest report of 30+ pages on Uganda as Museveni moves to clarify his status as supra-party, supra-legal supremo.

Here is the link to download: “Uganda’s Slow Slide Into Crisis“:

Crisis Group: Principal Findings

What’s the issue? Popular discontent is growing over President Museveni’s apparent desire to remain in power while governance, economic performance and security deteriorate.

Why does it matter? Uganda is not in danger of renewed civil war or rebel violence, but it risks sliding into a political crisis that could eventually threaten the country’s hard-won stability.

What should be done? The government should hold a national dialogue over presidential succession, enact reforms to the partisan police force, stop post- poning local elections and initiate broad consultations on land reform. Donors should encourage these efforts, while avoiding projects that help perpetuate political patronage.

Museveni has continued to have amazing grace from the United States which has taken a position of official neutrality as he has sought to strong arm his way to another constitutional change to eliminate the 75 year presidential age limit for the presidency.

As AMISOM has indicated its first troop drawdown of 1,000, and more U.S. forces deploy to assist the Somali National Army, Museveni volunteered another 5,000 Ugandans for the Somalia-building endeavor during President Trump’s “Nambia lunch” with African leaders in New York in September. No indication that we want to take him up on the offer, but we seem to continue to hold a stream of various defense-funded public events in Uganda and otherwise seem to desire to telegraph “strategic patience”, “immoral indulgence”, “complacent complicity” or whatever it is that best characterizes our multigenerational intertwining with the M7 regime.