October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
As a pacifist feminist who has protested Kenya’s war in Somalia, I cannot applaud the recent appointment of Fatumah Ahmed as Kenya’s First Female Brigadier.
Last August, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Fatumah Ahmed as Kenya’s First Female Brigadier of the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF). Fatumah Ahmed was promoted from a colonel to a brigadier as well as appointed the managing director of the Defense Forces Medical Insurance Scheme.
Ahmed’s appointment has generally been viewed as a win for feminism by feminists themselves, with the National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC) hailing it as a “milestone” and praising the President for the appointment. NGEC Chairman Winfred Lichuma deemed the appointment a promotion of gender equality in the management of the affairs of Kenya.
“For the first time, Kenya has a woman brigadier who is all-rounded, competent and qualified to serve in our disciplined forces. This is an empowerment to marginalized groups in the country,” said Lichuma.
Ms Lichuma acknowledged the appointment as a way to integrate women into male-dominated sectors, urging the State to borrow a leaf from Ahmed’s appointment and ensure it brings women on board to serve in key decision-making organs.
I’m a feminist myself who certainly believes that women should enjoy equal access to career advancement and jobs in all spheres. Kenyan women are already part of the military and the appointment of a Kenyan woman to this rank just means that they are able to get as much credit for risking their lives as men do.
Nonetheless, while the appointment is deservedly a feminist victory, it is certainly a mixed one. On one hand, achieving equality for Kenyan women in military leadership illustrates just how successful feminism in Kenya has been in one of its key missions: achieving equality.
Military leadership is, in a sense, a defining male role. And exclusion from the military hierarchy, has, in turn, been a defining feminine trait. A policy that acknowledges the participation of women in, and capacity for military leadership, is, therefore, an important assertion that we are not our gender roles. It demonstrates that women truly can do anything, and must be allowed to do everything that men can do.
But here’s the thing, feminism has never been just about equality. While many feminists advocate the need for women to enjoy equal opportunities as men, many still advocate for the need to criticize male patriarchal ideals and values. And one of the male patriarchal ideals and values that has been consistently questioned and criticized by feminists is war.
Fighting has always been a habit of men, not women, a difference that has been developed over time by practice and law. Throughout history, the majority of human beings and animals have been killed by men – not women.
Yet, as many female soldiers and female politicians have demonstrated, women can be just as attracted to warfare as men. The satisfaction, ,necessity and glory of fighting – which I as a pacifist feminist woman do not understand, feel or enjoy – is clearly not restricted to that one gender.
That said, while the history of war may not be entirely male, it has overwhelmingly been male. And this fact is not a mere anomaly; it is a pattern that deserves our attention. Yes, we can view the exclusion of women from the military hierarchy and say, “This is unfair; women must be allowed to lead wars.” But we can also view that exclusion and say, “If half of humanity has been excluded from warfare, maybe it’s because fighting is an exception rather than the rule, an aberration rather than a necessity.”
The satisfaction, necessity and glory of war are often linked to masculinity, the need to prove one’s moral worth as a man. From one perspective, this too is the reason why it’s important for women to be allowed inside the military hierarchy. Its because war is the standard for moral action, and Kenya’s status as an ethical nation is today linked to its people’s willingness to fight and die in a “righteous” war.
If this is the case, if our morality is tied to battle, then women must lead in warfare if they are to be honored and valued as moral actors. When war is so integral to the moral experience, those who are not warriors cannot be deemed equal. That is why modern-day feminist cultural icons like Onyesonwu are often warriors. And it’s also the reason why equality in the military has been such an important goal for numerous marginalized groups. Women leading wars are a tremendous boost for feminism and gender equality. It will also get increasingly hard to justify discrimination against women now that we are openly leading the fight and dying for our country.
Kenyan feminists can then draw moral force from the Kenyan military. But this moral force comes at a high price. That price is the moral force itself: acquiescing to war as the moral force and the moral standard.
Judged by the experience of women, war has long been found to be wanting. However, Kenyan feminism seems at ease in judging the experiences of women in relation to standards of empowerment that are traditionally male – of which military leadership is a particularly good example. Such judgment leaves no room for feminist criticism of war and militarism.
The tragedy of Fatumah Ahmed’s appointment is that Kenyan feminists have lost one more justification to protest when our daughters and sons are sacrificed on the moral altar of war. Is having a woman rise up in Kenyan military ranks really worth the lives of our sons and daughters lost in war?
February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Baga was destroyed, a fifth of its population wiped out, and yet the world remained silent. The outrage and attention of the world’s media was focused instead on the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The attacks in Baga and Paris unfolded over the same time frame, and yet the 17 victims in Paris received more media attention than the combined 2,000 victims killed in Baga. For Charlie Hebdo, the coverage was intense, news articles were longer, the op-eds were numerous, and the editorials full of emotion. While the Paris attacks dominated the international front page headlines, for Baga there were hardly any mentions, less attention, less indignation and no outrage. In a clear double standard, the stories of both the victims and the attackers of Charlie Hebdo were repeatedly told, while the Baga victims were depicted as mere statistics.
The media tried to explain away this double standard by saying it was difficult for journalists to obtain evidence on the Baga victims. They said this even as alternative press with fewer resources was able to gather substantial material on the Baga massacre from credible sources such as Amnesty International. Others excused the intense coverage of Charlie as just the media’s way of showing solidarity with their own; while ignoring the fact that more non-western journalists have died due to “terrorism” than westerners, and yet have never received as much attention.
The real reason for this double standard is the massive political bias that exists in western media reporting, in which the deaths of westerners are sensationalized while those of non-westerners are downplayed or neglected altogether. Its only when reports of non-western victims can be politically advantageous that their plight receives attention. The kidnapping of the 200 girls in Nigeria last year was sensationalized by the West and its media under the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag so as to provide a moral basis for increased western militarization of the region. Close to a year later, the girls still haven’t been rescued.
The media bias also means that the severe abuse faced by victims of depraved western torture, illegal drone strikes and war crimes receives more antiseptic reporting. Deaths of victims of western terrorism are considered as natural, with the media offering minimal, if any calls in search of responsibility. By ignoring those victimized by the West, ongoing western policies can proceed more easily, without interference due to concern over politically inconvenient victims.
If you’re not careful, the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
– Malcolm X
Critics are already voicing concerns about the lack of critical media coverage and the acceptance at face value of official allegations on the Charlie Hebdo attack. There are legitimate fears that this intense coverage will be used to justify a crackdown on civil liberties in the West, and in particular to silence critics of Israel/ supporters of Palestine in France. Other fears are that the portrayal of the Paris attacks as a “Clash of Civilizations”, in which western ideals of freedom are under assault from Islam, is fueling Islamophobia. This false portrayal persists despite the fact that more Muslims and non-westerners die from “terrorism” than non-Muslims and westerners.
And then there was the general African reaction to the two attacks, which left a lot to be desired. Ignoring the victims in his own continent, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo was quick to fly to Paris to mourn in solidarity with the French. Incidentally, the hypocrisy of this African dictator marching in defense of freedom of speech while clamping down on free speech at home was not lost on observers.
Equally culpable was the African media whose reporting normalized and treated the Baga massacre as business as usual. Rather than providing coverage that could generate public interest, mobilize activists and institutions, and bring about change, Baga was left pretty much in the incompetent hands of the Nigerian government. To the African media, a few lives lost in the West were more newsworthy and therefore important than thousands dead in their own backyard.
Even more worrisome was the spectacle of Africans on social media rushing to declare “Je Suis Charlie”, while displaying a lack of concern for the victims in Baga. For us to express shock and outrage at the killing of westerners, but be unmoved by the slaughter of thousands of our own is a sign that we have internalized racist western views about ourselves. We no longer consider our own deaths to be important but instead believe that western lives matter more, are more human, more worthy, more valuable, more deserving of life. Its time we stopped neglecting our own tragedies while valuing the lives of westerners over our own.
January 15, 2015 § 1 Comment
Under the guise of being an “equal opportunity offender” Charlie Hebdo‘s intolerance was not only directed towards Muslims, but also diverse groups of marginalized peoples including Africans. Charlie Hebdo mercilessly targeted black people with a selection of racist cartoons including those featured below. This is why I say Africa is not Charlie. Because Charlie was racist and racists do not make martyrs.
Of course, the “Je Suis Charlie” apologists for Charlie‘s racism are now trying to shift the blame onto those offended by asserting that it is in fact we who lack the intelligence to comprehend the complexities of French satire as manifested by Charlie‘s crass, vulgar and tasteless sense of humor. They want us to believe that Charlie was in the same league as the Onion and Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. They are trying to tell us that we should instead be grateful to and stand in solidarity with Charlie because Charlie was “anti-racist”.
Yet “fighting racism by being racist” is an old, tired and rather disingenuous excuse for racism that has long been used to systematically silence black people who call out racism. Racism is racism and you do not get to be racist and thereafter insist on defining what is and isn’t racism for those you have offended. The idea that only white voices are allowed to define what is and isn’t racist is an exercise in white privilege that seeks to uphold white supremacy.
The wider implications around black people’s rights not to have their group depicted as a racist stereotype must also not be ignored. While Charlie‘s stereotypical racist depictions may have appeared normal during the French colonization of Africa, today they are at best infantile and at worst derogatory. They exemplify the essential problem with white anti-racism in general, and certainly the problem with anti-racism in France.
The most worrying aspect of the “Je Suis Charlie” campaign, for me, is how easily it ignores the link between dehumanization and mass killings. During the Nuremberg trials on the Jewish Holocaust, the publisher of a German Magazine was tried and executed for publishing anti-Semitic cartoons. In the Arusha tribunal on the Rwandan genocide a radio journalist was among those tried. Another radio journalist is currently on trial at the ICC for crimes against humanity relating to Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/8. In all three cases, journalists were accused of spreading hate speech.
It is noteworthy that the people voicing the strongest support for Charlie do not belong to racist movements. They are not members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi groups of Europe. These are ordinary white people who ignore the link between dehumanization and killing in cold blood. It is the good white people who resort to emotional antics under the banner #JeSuisCharlie, when their right to define racism is challenged.
If there’s anything the events of the last week have taught us, it is that for all their virtuous proclamations of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, the French people’s sense of morality is highly questionable.
December 7, 2014 § 6 Comments
Just days after a deadly attack in which the Somali militant group Al Shabaab killed 28 Kenyans on a bus from Mandera, a new raid by the militant group in the town left 32 people dead. In the first attack, Al Shabaab gunmen commandeered a bus leaving Mandera, and separated non-Muslims from Muslims who they then proceeded to shoot dead. The militants said the massacre was in response to Kenyan Muslims being “attacked in places of worship and in their homes.” In the weeks leading to the attack, the Kenyan government had ordered the closure of four mosques in Mombasa, with police shooting one person dead and arresting more than 200 Muslims.
In the second attack the heavily armed Al Shabaab operatives struck at a miners’ camp at dawn, and again separated the non-Muslims from the Muslims before shooting dead and beheading 36 Kenyans. In claiming responsibility for this second attack, Al Shabaab said it was carried out in response to:
(a) “Kenya’s occupation of Muslim lands and their ongoing atrocities therein, such as the recent airstrikes on Muslims in Somalia which caused the death of innocent Muslims and the destruction of their properties and livestock,
(b) As well as the continued suffering of Muslims in Mombasa.
(c) As Kenya… kills innocent Muslims,
(d) Transgresses upon their sanctities and throws them into prisons.”
The militant group went on to promise further attacks, should the Kenyan government fail to address these issues.
A Record of Failures
Since October 2011 when the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, insecurity in the country has spiraled out of control, with attacks that largely target non-Muslims on killing sprees, becoming common occurrences in Nairobi, the coastal region, and parts of North Eastern. Earlier this year, close to 100 non-Muslims in Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi areas of the Kenyan coast were killed by Al Shabaab militants.
Following the assault on the Westgate shopping centre in September of last year, which left over 70 dead, the Kenyan government responded by putting forth various security strategies that have since proven to be failures. First, they instituted the ‘Nyumba Kumi’ (know thy neighbor) ten houses initiative. This concept is based on dividing homes into groups of 10, with the household members holding each other accountable by sharing information on any suspicious activity. While appearing neat in theory, the concept proved impotent in foiling the ever-mutating Al Shabaab attacks.
After the Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi attacks, the government then instituted Operation Usalama Watch. This involved the large scale state-led ethnic profiling, scapegoating and collective punishment of the entire Somali community for the crimes of a few. During this operation more than 4000 Somalis were arrested and detained at Kasarani stadium in dehumanizing conditions. Rather than improving the security situation, this security sweep touched a raw nerve, exacerbating the already tense relations between the Somali community and the state.
Kenyans Continue to Die
Acting under the umbrella of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a regional military intervention in Somalia that included African soldiers from other western proxy countries and client states, Kenya assisted in pushing Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu. A further push took away Al Shabaab’s control of the port city of Kismayo, which in turn diminished the capacity of the militant group by denying them their core source of revenue. Following this success, the Kenyan government and military were quick to pronounce the defeat of Al Shabaab to Kenyans. But this was a deadly exaggeration.
As we can see from the Mandera attacks, despite its diminished capacity, Al Shabaab has had no problem whatsoever in carrying out attacks in Kenya. If anything, these recent attacks are a sign that, to the militants, Kenya remains vulnerable and open for staging even more “spectacular” attacks.
Moreover, the Al Shabaab strategy of bleeding Kenya through multiple attacks in far-flung vulnerable areas like Mandera will only contribute in making the country look increasingly unsafe to outsiders. As we speak, Kenya’s tourism industry continues to suffer the negative effects of western travel advisories issued following the Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi attacks, warning westerners not to travel to certain areas in Kenya due to security concerns.
Ever since Kenya invaded and began its occupation of Somalia, Kenyans from all walks of life – commuters, the poor and rich, miners and policemen, Somali, Kikuyu and Luhya – have all suffered the effects of insecurity. From bomb explosions to grenade attacks, massacres and ambushes – more and more aspects of the daily lives of ordinary Kenyans are being impacted by this violence that only continues to spread. As with previous attacks, the Mandera attacks have left the nation shaken, sowing fear anew in a country that is sadly growing accustomed to sophisticated attacks of murderous brutality.
The attacks by Al Shabaab have also laid bare deeper issues and fundamental problems that Kenyans face, which have nothing to do with the militant group or even the conflict in Somalia:
(a) Politics of fear: The Kenyan political elite thrive on manipulating the public into supporting their harmful policies through scare-mongering and the exaggeration of threats in order to instill fear.
(b) Politics of ethnicity: Even after Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Mpeketoni attack via live broadcast, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta instead blamed internal politics, dissidents and outlawed groups, claiming that a specific ethnic group had been targeted. This move was characteristic of the polarizing ethnicity that continues to plague Kenya.
(c) An incapable police force: The failure of all the security strategies implemented by the security agencies charged to protect Kenyans is a sign that Kenya’s police force lacks efficient investigative abilities.
(d) An unprofessional and undisciplined army: Following the Westgate massacre, CCTV footage of looting by Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) was released, serving as evidence that the Kenyan military lacks integrity and consequently the capacity to bring about lasting peace to the region.
What Kenya Needs to Do
Even as the perilous Al Shabaab threat looms ever larger in Kenya, the government seems hell-bent on leaving Kenyans vulnerable to more shocking violence. In response to the latest Mandera attack, President Kenyatta addressed the nation saying: “We will not flinch or relent in the war against terrorism in our country and our region.” He then moved to fire Cabinet Secretary for the Interior and Coordination of National Government, Joseph ole Lenku, while accepting the resignation of the head of police, Inspector General David Kimaiyo.
However, this move to change security personnel is just a political sideshow to divert the attention of public from the true cause of the spiraling attacks: Kenya’s continued presence in Somalia. It’s time for Kenyans to realize that it’s not the policy-implementers like Kimaiyo and ole Lenku that are the problem – it’s the policy itself of continued occupation of Somalia.
Firing ole Lenku and having Kimaiyo resign will not solve our grave national security problem. To prevent more Manderas, the Kenyan government must define its Somalia exit plan. All efforts at countering the Al Shabaab security threat must be linked to a clearly defined strategy for exiting Somalia. The current policy of an open-ended stay of KDF in Somalia has only led to mission creep. And now Kenya, once posturing herself as “liberator” has been transformed into an invading occupier.
While some of my fellow Kenyans may find it admirable when our President talks tough, this dogged insistence on remaining in Somalia is not sustainable, given the growing insecurity within our borders. As Kenya’s indifferent politicians continue with their tough stance, and instead use this key national security issue to score political points, Kenyans continue to die. The adventures of KDF in Somalia and every other security measure have not only failed to improve security and stop Al Shabaab attacks, but seem to have worsened the already grave situation. The only way to guarantee the safety and security of all Kenyans is by the Kenyan political leaders mapping out a strategy to end the occupation of Somalia.