Torture and Counter-Terrorism in Nairobi

Recent investigative journalism reports have uncovered disturbing evidence of torture, enforced disappearances, and other forms of human rights abuses occurring at the hands of US-funded police and intelligence agencies in Kenya (as well as across Africa).

Research from the Angaza Foundation for African Reporting has traced the connections between these instances of abuse to US-funded counter-terrorism strategies being implemented across Africa. These counter-terrorism units have emerged in order to fight the militant group Al-Shabab, which recruits among Kenyans. In particular, the Kenyan Defence Force and the anti-terrorism police unit in the country have been largely US-funded and accused of torture, enforced disappearances, and summary executions.

One account, provided by the Guardian runs as follows:

Just before his torturers pushed him out of the van, barely conscious, on to the Nairobi pavement, Abdi was told he was one of the lucky ones: “You were supposed to die tonight. Abdi said he was walking out of the university where he studied in 2015 when a car, modified to operate as a mobile torture unit, pulled up next to him, and a gun with a silencer was pointed at his face. As Abdi was restrained he was told by men who identified themselves as police that he had been under surveillance for years. His interrogators were suspicious because he was living in a house outside Eastleigh, Nairobi’s predominantly Somali suburb. They kept asking: “Are you trying to recruit for al-Shabaab? Whenever they did not like an answer they shocked him with an industrial cattle prod, he says, estimating that the whole ordeal lasted for seven hours.

Much of the evidence cited in this case supports key conceptual and empirical concerns of the VIPRE Initiative. Specifically:

1. The transnational or circulatory structure of torture and other practices of political  violence as being intimately related to training regimes that cross borders. See Austin (2016).

2. The fact, nonetheless, that training regimes which run across borders only very rarely involve direct training in torture, instead serving to create ‘enabling environments’ in which torture emerges through complex and contingent patterns of situational interaction rather than any particular ‘decision’ to engage in this act. See Austin (2017a).

3. The ways in which – despite the lack of training and ‘orders’ to torture – the micro-practical techniques employed in torture have been globalised across borders. Here, the use of an ‘industrial cattle prod’ to inflict pain is simply a repetition of a far more global practice. See Austin (2016) & Rejali (2003).

4. The ways in which the ‘materiality’ of social settings is key to torture, as exemplified here by the use of a “mobile torture unit” due to the absence of dedicated facilities to carry out this form of violence. Precisely the same procedure occurred in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s, for example. See Austin (2017b).