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Rubble of the El-Shifa factory

This article recounts a major war crime committed against the people of Sudan in August 1998. Reflecting on the rationale and unfolding of this crime, it examines the veracity of the official claims, the reactions and implications of the deed. The importance of remembering our past in an accurate and unbiased manner is underscored.

You have to know the past to understand the present. Carl Sagan

Missiles out of nowhere

Twenty-one years ago, on 19 August 1998, the then largest country in Africa was the scene of a grave war crime. I talk of Sudan, a nation that has been on the front news pages of recent. But I do not refer to Darfur, the civil war in the south or other oppressive acts of the regime. I have in mind the sudden destruction of a factory in Khartoum that was producing essential medicines needed by the people.

On that day, United States President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles attacks on two nations, Afghanistan and Sudan. A total of 79 missiles were dispatched. In a televised address, he justified the strikes with one key word:

Our target was terror. Our mission was clear. President Bill Clinton, 20 August 1998.

On 7 August 1998, two US embassies in Africa were bombed within minutes of each other. Two hundred and twenty four people perished, and about 4000 were injured, mostly nationals of Kenya and Tanzania. The US State Department laid the blame for the bombing on a group led by Osama Bin Laden, a shadowy Saudi Arabian dissident. It was not noted that this group was a progeny of the paramilitary groups that had received lavish US financial, material and diplomatic backing barely a decade earlier. 

The targets of the missile attacks in Afghanistan were declared to be Bin Laden, his followers and facilities. Four missiles went off course, landing in the newly nuclear armed Pakistan. Independent information on these targets is scarce, but at least 25 civilians died and more than 50 were injured in the attack (Ahmad 2001; Read 2003). 

On the other hand, much is known about the target in Sudan, at which 14 missiles were fired. It was the El-Shifa industrial facility adjacent to a residential area in Khartoum. It was reduced to rubble. Senior US and British officials, including the American Secretary of Defence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff gave a specific rationale for selecting the target, depicting it with ‘high confidence’ as a tightly guarded secret plant for the manufacture of chemical ingredients that could be used to make the deadly nerve gas, VX (Healy 1998).

A minute amount of VX absorbed through the skin blocks the nervous and respiratory systems, causing death from suffocation and vomiting. Relatively inexpensive and easy to produce, it was first manufactured in the 1950s by the British military. The production method alleged to have been used by Sudan was devised by chemists working for the US Army (BBC 1999d; Zorpette 1998). 

US officials slated it as an act of self-defence to thwart future terrorist attacks. According to the Secretary of State, the strike heralded the wars of the future. Editorials in major media across that nation chimed in their loyal support.

The United States has demonstrated its readiness to act unilaterally against terrorists if need be, exercising its right to self-defence. Editorial (1998a).

To declare that Sudan is involved in the production of VX is a serious charge. It calls for a United Nations initiated investigation and sanction, if true. The two key issues were: (i) What was produced at the plant? (ii) Who owned and financed it? A further question is: Even if the allegations were true, was the US justified to act unilaterally as it did?

What did the factory produce?

Despite calls from respected domestic and foreign quarters, the US did not make public its evidence that a precursor of VX was produced at the plant. Knowledgeable experts queried the accuracy of the tests used to identify the chemical. They said that available pesticides and herbicides have ingredients similar to the one in question (Hitchens 1999). It was conceded that the US case rested on a single soil sample supposedly taken near the plant (Risen 1999). Hence, the room for error was wide. A closed-door session held by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) scientists to explain the strike to other analysts within the US government was deemed unconvincing by the attendees (Whitelaw, Strobel and Duffy 1999). When asked to submit the incriminating sample for independent analysis, the inimitable answer was: It had been used up in testing. In October 1998, the owner of the factory hired the head of the Chemistry Department of Boston University to collect a set of ‘carefully catalogued samples’ from the plant site and the vicinity. No trace of chemical weapons material was detected (Risen and Johnston 1999). As the technical loopholes in the official rationale mounted, a stony silence became the ultimate response. 

Contesting testimony that the plant did not produce chemical warfare material came from Sudanese and external sources. A British engineer, Tom Carnaffin, a member of the technical management for the factory from 1992 to 1996 was one. With ‘intimate’ information about the factory, he declared that ‘it just does not lend itself to the manufacture of chemical weapons’ (Tanner 1998). A local expert at the plant, KH Shibeka, informed a delegation that visited the destroyed plant a month later:

This was a packaging facility. It didn’t even have equipment to synthesise milk into cheese, much less make nerve gas.(quoted in Becker, Flounders and Parker (1999)).

Documents, records and what remained at the site clearly showed that it produced ‘antibiotics, malaria tablets and syrups as well as drugs for hypertension, diabetes, ulcer, tuberculosis and rheumatism’(Bol 1998). About half the supply of the then standard drug for malaria, chloroquine, and a large portion of the veterinary drugs used in Sudan came from this source (Becker, Flounders and Parker 1999; Rockwell 1998; Wintour 1998). Foreign diplomats stationed in Sudan countered the claim that it was anything besides a factory producing medicines for human and animal use. As a result, the nation faced an immediate shortage of these critical supplies.

In light of irrefutable evidence, Washington quietly retracted its initial assertion that the plant did not produce medicines. The reformulated claim was that it also produced a nerve gas precursor. Subsequently this claim was also repackaged and transformed into the claim that it was a trans-shipment point for such noxious material.

Within weeks of the strike, the New York Times, among other papers, pointed to the shallow rationale for the bombing. The depiction by US officials, the facility was a top secret, well-guarded military plant, which did not produce medicines for general use does ‘not appear to be factual’(Weiner and Myers (1998), quoted in Ireland (1998)). Located in a civilian industrial area adjacent to a residential zone, El-Shifa was not a military facility; it was the largest pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. Foreign reporters found an accessible civilian facility at which students from the local school of pharmacy received a part of their training. Even school children toured it as a part of their extra-curricular activity. It had been recently visited by World Health Organisation officials as well (Boavard 2004; Rockwell 2008).

David Hirst, a veteran British journalist who toured the bombed site a week later found but the remnants of medicinal plant, and concluded:

There was precious little sign of anything sinister when foreign journalists got to the controversial chemical plant that the American cruise missiles hit. No sign, anyway, that anyone had been trying to hide anything, or planned to do so. (Hirst 1998).

A proposal for an inquiry under the auspices of the UN on whether it had produced chemical weapons was blocked by the US. Its ambassador gave a spectacular reason for the move.

Putting together a technical team to confirm something we already know would seem to have little point to us. US Ambassador Peter Burleigh quoted in Ahmad (1998). 

A similar call by former US President Jimmy Carter was also rebuffed. And, just some four months later, when Clinton launched a four-day missile attack on Iraq, the issue of targeting chemical and biological weapons manufacturing facilities also arose. Responding to hawkish criticism that it had not targeted facilities considered to be producing chemical or biological weapons, a curious admission was heard from a senior US general. He basically admitted nothing of military significance could be attained in mounting such an attack.

At a Pentagon briefing on Jan. 7, [1998,] [General Anthony] Zinni said the ease with which chemical and biological agents can be manufactured, particularly for terrorist type of use, made bombing of dual-use facilities (such as pharmaceutical plants) futile (Arkin 1999).

Had that logic been discovered in the preceding few months, or did it not apply to the El-Shifa plant in Sudan? And, as it turned out, even in the case of Iraq what was declared by the US administration and the reality were entirely distinct entities. It is beyond doubt that the American allegation that Sudan was producing chemical weapons was false. The so-called chemical weapons were phantom chemical weapons and were known by US officials to be so (Loeb 1999; Astill 2001). 

Who controlled the plant?

The second reason given for attacking the plant was that Osama bin Laden was, in one way or another, a financial kingpin of the facility. The US intelligence establishment declared it a vital component of Sudan’s ‘military-industrial complex’, which had received funds from Bin Laden (Healy 1998). 

These claims also turned out to be hollow. No evidence was ever brought forth to show that it was directly or otherwise financed by the Bin Laden group. Later it was declared that he had fuzzy ties with it, without explaining what that meant (Ireland 1998). 

The plant was owned Saleh Idris, a Sudanese born businessman and a national of Saudi Arabia and was funded by a development bank in Kenya (Astill 2001). Subsequently, the US government froze his bank assets, which included nearly US$24 million held with the Bank of America. In response, he filed a civil suit in a US court against the Treasury Department and the Bank of America claiming that his assets were blocked despite the lack of evidence that the El-Shifa plant had produced chemical warfare agents. In May 1999, a dramatic turn in the case occurred. Just before a court response was due, the White House unconditionally unfroze the assets. The implications were clear.

[T]he move is an implicit acknowledgment that Washington has no evidence to justify its action last August.(BBC 1999c).

In private, that was not being denied. As The New York Times reported:

American intelligence officials .... also conceded that they had outdated information on the ownership of the plant, and at the time of the strike did not know that it had been sold to a Saudi businessman. Some Central Intelligence Agency and State Department officials had privately questioned the decision to strike, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to prove a link either to nerve gas or to [Mr.] bin Laden (Risen 1999).

Nevertheless, the public facade went on. The charges of a link between Idris and ‘international terrorism’ were not dropped even though in effect they were not being pursued. Idris, for his part, continued to seek full compensation and vindication in the courts (BBC 2000). Idris was not a political ally of the Sudanese government. In fact, his Sudanese lawyer was associated with the democratic opposition in the country. 

Finally, even the assertion by Clinton that his target was ‘terror’ came into disrepute. Days after the attack on the American embassies in Africa, it was the government of Sudan that had informed US officials that it had detained two suspects in the case (Risen 1999). This act was not without precedent. In the past, Sudan had worked with France to apprehend Carlos, a wanted international terrorist. It had also heeded an earlier US call to expel Osama Bin Laden. But this time, the White House disregarded the overture about the embassy bombing suspects. Instead, its answer was one which befits a superpower: to attack the malaria tablets producing facility. Angered by this irrational response, Sudan let the two suspects walk free.

Most mainstream assessments a year after the act concluded that it was based on vacuous justifications, even though the US maintained its hard line in public (Loeb 1999). Thus, ‘virtually everything said publicly about El-Shifa ... turned out to be wrong’ (Whitelaw, Strobel and Duffy 1999). Two years after the event the conclusions were more forthright: that there was simply no cause for this assault (BBC 2000; Marshall 2000). 

The Clinton administration’s smoking gun was little more than a cupful of dirt that a “CIA operative” had scooped up in December 1997 across the street from the factory — 60 feet from the factory entrance and on someone else’s property. The CIA did not bother to test the soil sample until July 1998. Former CIA official Milt Bearden later observed, “Never before has a single soil sample prompted an act of war against a sovereign state.”(Bovard 2004).

In most cases of US military actions, relevant, timely and accurate information to check the official version is not available. Tight secrecy, controlled release of material to the press, adroit spin doctoring, the reticence of American and other journalists, and the pro-US bias in the major media have historically made the truth harder to ascertain. Such was, for example, the case in the Gulf War of 1991. Often, crucial facts about such events become public decades after they occurred.

The attack on the El-Shifa factory was a notable exception. Just the day after and in a Kafkaesque fashion, the tale spun by the US began to unravel. All independent observers repudiated the narrative, bit by bit, word by word. Faced by adverse publicity, the White House backtracked, no longer, try hard as it might, able to hold on to any piece of the original claim. Two years later, the conclusions were more forthright: that there was simply no sound cause for the act. It only demonstrated the typical super power tendency to adopt the end justifies the means policy. And the patent lies were not corrected.

A nation in agony

Consider the consequences of the missile assault. In 1998, Sudan had a population of about 32 million with per-person annual income of around US$300. Wracked by years of military rule and civil war, the situation in the nation was grim. Some 1.2 million people had perished since 1983. The economy was totally ravaged. Absolute poverty and lethal diseases were widespread (BBC 1999f).

In the last four decades of the 20th century, the US alternately supported the rebel forces in South Sudan, and the government, both of whom had had no regard for civilian lives and property. War was a major cause of persistent famine, and the US intervention played a key role in the persistence of that disaster. After the mid-1970s, it sharply increased military aid to the government, intensifying the internal conflict. The total arms related funding it gave in the ensuing period came to more than US$2 billion. By 1980, Sudan was ‘the sixth largest recipient of US military aid’ (Ferenbach 1998; Chopin 2000).

In line with its political priorities, the US switched sides in the 1990s. Now it channelled support to the southern armed groups while isolating and imposing economic sanctions on the Islamist regime in Khartoum. Much of the support to the rebels was channelled through proxy regimes. Western charities were also active in places where the impact of war and famine were the greatest. While ameliorating some immediate problems to a degree, long term benefits were marginal at best. In fact, prominent human rights groups declared that the manner in which the charities functioned helped sustain the civil war rather than bring it to a peaceful and negotiated resolution (Chopin 2000; Connell 2000; De Waal 1997).

In 1998, the country was in the grip of a harsh famine. An excess of 60,000 people reportedly had died within a year. Most of the victims were young children. Had it not been for the humanitarian donations, the death toll would have been higher (BBC 1999f). 

This is the context of the strike on El-Shifa factory. The direct toll was nine civilian injuries and one death. Some 360 people lost their jobs. The demolition of nearly half of the medicine producing capacity of a poor nation in the midst of a famine, where the toll of treatable diseases was astronomical, could not but have a profound immediate and structural impact. El-Shifa was also the only factory that was producing cheap tuberculosis drugs and veterinary medicines in Sudan (Astill 2001). Ramsey Clark, a former US Attorney General, noted that the plant was a critical part of the health delivery system, and concluded that the result would be nothing short of a public health catastrophe if replacement medicines were not immediately provided. He also noted that 

[t]he pharmaceuticals produced in El-Shifa were sold at prices which averaged about 20 percent of the prices of the same products on the international market. With government subsidy, 15 percent of the production was distributed free to the poor. Few in Sudan can afford the high cost of foreign pharmaceutical products.(Ramsey Clark quoted in Becker, Flounders and Parker (1999)).

Consider two specific aspects of the health situation. A few months after the attack, an epidemic of meningitis hit Sudan. An infectious disease that affects the lining of the brain and spinal cord, it spreads rapidly in a dry and dusty environment as that in many parts of Sudan. The viral form tends to be self-limiting, but the bacterial form requires antibiotic treatment. One of the antibiotics used to treat the infection is Penicillin. In Africa, mass vaccination programmes are generally required to prevent the epidemic spread of the condition. In early 1999, such an epidemic was raging but there was an acute shortage of antibiotics to treat it. In many areas, people had not been vaccinated for the disease because of ‘an acute shortage of vaccines’ (BBC 1999b).

Between December 1998 and May 1999, more than 20,000 people were seriously afflicted and around 1,500 died. A large-scale vaccination programme mounted later, and rainfall were thought to have finally brought the epidemic under control (BBC 1999d).

Take another case: While rain helped solve one problem, it created others. Heavy floods in 1999 damaged the water pumping systems and many were left with no alternative but to use polluted water. Serious cases of abdominal infections mounted. By the middle of July, 74 out of about 1,000 reported such cases died. Similar fatalities in other areas also occurred (Osman 1999). 

These instances are but a tiny facet of the enormous scope of health maladies in Sudan. El-Shifa was a key node in dealing with them. Its overnight destruction not only meant that more money was spent by a destitute nation to import substitute drugs but also that the diseases not using El-Shifa products were affected by the diversion of resources. 

No reliable estimates of how many children and adults perished from the lack of antibiotics and other medications due to the bombing exist. Writing in the Boston Globe a year later, Jonathan Belke characterised the bombing virtually a crime against humanity. 

Sanctions against Sudan make it impossible to import adequate amounts of medicines required to cover the serious gap left by the plant’s destruction. Thus, tens of thousands of people – many of them children – have suffered and died from malaria, tuberculosis, and other treatable diseases. Belke (1999). 

He did not add that it was a crime with total impunity for the criminals. It also permitted the continuation of an overall policy on Sudan that was nothing short of disastrous. In the year 2000, the unilateral economic sanctions that had placed hardships on ordinary Sudanese were in small part relaxed. But, the key aspects of a policy, which extenuated the brutal civil war, and promoted militarism instead of diplomatic conflict resolution in Sudan continued (Chopin 2000; Connell 2000). 

Despite clear revelations that its justifications did not hold water, the US government did not give even minimal compensation for the loss it caused. And the people of Sudan did not even get an apology. While the ordinary folk suffered, the dictatorial regime in Sudan reaped diplomatic benefits and positive publicity. As in other places and many other times, the American propensity to employ overwhelming violence without cause and rank deceit turned monsters into heroes.

The domestic reaction

Nineteen ninety-eight was a year of political scandal in the US. Bill Clinton stood accused of having oral sex with Monica Lewinsky, a young female intern, in his White House office. When it became public, he initially denied ever having sexual relations with Lewinsky. An outcry of presidential wrong doing led to calls for an official inquiry. His opponents in the Republican Party set the ball rolling until a federal grand jury to investigate the matter was appointed. On 5 August 1998, she testified before the grand jury. Among the lines of inquiry were: Had there been a sexual relationship between her and the president? Had he lied under oath about it? Had he been a party to the concealment of relevant evidence from judicial scrutiny? 

On 17 August, Clinton testified before the grand jury. He later went on national television to admit an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with her and apologised for earlier false statements. In three days, that is, on 20 August, she was scheduled to reappear before the grand jury. More damaging testimony was expected to come out. And the night before the testimony, Clinton dispatched 79 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto Sudan and Afghanistan. 

Clinton’s admission about the sex scandal shocked the nation. Though only a few were surprised, it set off a torrent of harsh comments in the print and broadcast media. A major concern was whether or not he had shown genuine contrition. Many were unhappy at the ambiguity he projected. And not many appreciated his attack on the Independent Counsel. According to a poll, less than a sixth of the public called his apology sincere, and only a quarter viewed him as a positive role model for the nation’s youth (Brownstein 1998).

Denoting his act as ‘Seven Months Late,’ the Los Angeles Times said, ‘Americans have a right to feel disappointment in this president’ (Editorial 1998a). An erudite columnist opined that in making a feeble admission, he took advantage of his general popularity and likened his speech to a public relations gambit. Instead of ‘simple truthful answers,’ he had leaned on ‘designer answers.’ He was a ‘corrupter of language’ who practiced ‘the ethics of salesmanship.’  (Huffington 1998).

Professors of political science and law, major media writers, political analysts, and civic leaders took him to task for substituting eloquence for substance and not showing simple humility or demonstrating remorse. They rebuked the Democrats for granting him excessive benefit of doubt. On this issue, only a few defended him in a forthright manner. 

The attack on El-Shifa was condemned all over Africa and the world. In the US, the totality of the reactions to it and its consequences were, on the other hand, akin to a sublime comedy of ethics in an ostensibly mature democracy. The media took a short break from the ridicule it heaped on Clinton for the sex scandal to adopt a patriotically correct stand. Even though their own pages demonstrated the facile justification for the act of war, the editorials and commentators for the most part stood by the president.

The behaviour of America’s mass media in the wake of the US attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan proved once again the wisdom of the old adage that when the flag is unfurled, all reason is in the trumpet. Ireland (1998).

The reaction of the political establishment to the bombing also indicated the strong bipartisan tilt towards official untruth even in this truth-seeking impeachment era.

·     Despite their stated desire for the whole truth, most Republicans cosily went along with what was at best, even by their own standards, a partial truth. Newt Gingrich, the speaker of the House of Representatives and an ardent foe of Clinton, supported the timing of and reasons for the attack. 

·     Other Republicans viewed the timing as a planned distraction from the sex scandal. But they did not have a problem with the attacks as such.

·     The Democrats had no qualms in not pursuing the truth regarding White House words and deeds in this crucial matter.

·     Despite possible violation of international and US laws implied by the act, and the usurpation of congressional authority to declare war by the executive branch, it did not figure in any of the articles of impeachment of Clinton formulated a few months later. 

·     Kenneth Starr, the Independent Counsel who doggedly pursued the president to uncover the minutest of faults in the Lewinsky affair, did not seek authority to broaden his jurisdiction to cover this possibly unlawful act.

·     Over the next two years, the White House and Congress went on pursuing their hard line stand on the civil war in Sudan. Clinton moved towards a more direct support for the rebels in the South. Just a few analysts in the mainstream media decried this move as ‘a direct return to Cold War thinking and military involvement.’ The private US aid agencies who rarely issue political statements disparaged it (Chopin 2000). But their cries were to no avail as the license to lie about gratuitous violence abroad renewed in the impeachment days was now being put to full use.

The general reaction to the bombings from the society at large was not too far from the establishment reaction.

[T]he missile strikes worked a small wonder for Bill Clinton at home. Politicians gave bipartisan support to the beleaguered President’s decision; the country rallied around. And all over the world, Operation Infinite Reach became known as Operation Monica. Ahmad (1998). 

In a comprehensive analysis of this episode, Hitchens (1999) makes a coherent case for the proposition that the timing of the attack was linked to the sex scandal. He says that if the administration had evidence to buttress its evaporating rationale for the attack, it would have been made public. That it was not is a telling point. On the other hand, McManus and Miller (1998) convey the impression that the timing bore no relation to the Monica Lewinsky affair. Whatever the truth about this contention, one thing is clear. A military action is a good bet to raise the popularity of a president. The general impact of the missile launches was predictable. Poll after poll showed 70 percent to 80 percent level of support for the strike. At the least, the scandal was not a deterrent for launching the missiles. Initially, people harped cynical comments. Many voiced doubts about the timing. But these were garden variety misgivings with no detectable deleterious political consequences for Clinton.

Hence, no supplies of medicines from even private sources from the US were sent to remedy the shortfall caused by political recklessness emanating from the White House. A handful of people of conscience protested in the streets. Ramsey Clark and members of the International Action Center and a few college students were vocal in expressing solidarity with the people of Sudan. But such voices were met with stony silence from the rest of society. 

The issue was not viewed in terms of morality and ethics. Opinion polls on the decency of depriving medicines to tens of thousands of children and poor people were neither conducted nor reported. Neither the American Medical Association nor the American Public Health Association mustered the moral audacity to assess the health impact of the missile strike. Medical schools across the US, where many courses on ethics were taught, maintained the expected level of patriotic stillness on this score. There was no effort from these renowned institutions to help the deprived children of Sudan.

The staunch international ally of US militarism was more forthright. Lady Bingham, the wife of the United Kingdom Chief Justice, sought compensation for Sudan for its loss of anti-malaria drugs production capacity. She was supported by the British Red Cross. But, it was categorically rejected by the UK government.

Lady Bingham warned that the recent floods in Sudan had led to a proliferation of mosquitoes and hence malaria. She said a year’s supply of the drug [chloroquine] would cost about pounds 25,000. Wintour (1998).

A few US citizens expressed words of compassion. Barbara Cross (1998) wrote in a letter to a major daily that the US should replace the medicines it destroyed. But that was not meant to be. To do so would be to admit error. Official lies, once promulgated, become enshrined in the domain of national security, and enjoy virtual immunity. No concessions are permissible even as the monetary amount is about what it costs to send a student for a year to a leading US private medical school.

Clinton publicly proclaimed a clear lie the very week he made a public confession of his relation with Monica Lewinsky. His declaration of a civilian pharmaceutical plant as terror came in the midst of a relentless media campaign to besmirch him as an artful liar and a sinful adulterer. The facts of the case became clear within weeks. Nevertheless, it barely engendered a political ripple. Mounting revelations that turned the US rationale into a logical cesspool did not make the Clinton regime budge from its line that the plant was related to terrorist activity. No supportive data were needed, even though it was an act, which adversely impacted the lives and health tens of thousands of children.

It was emboldened in this stand by the two disparate reactions. Those relating to the sex scandal and malaria factory implied extramarital sex was an issue of morality but jeopardising the lives of Sudanese children was not. And you can unleash horrific violence on innocent people in other nations with a solid bipartisan and public support (Tirman 2012). 

Designer duplicity

The Clinton administration projected itself as a promoter of human rights and democracy. Its stated international policy goals were to combat terrorism and spread freedom, reconciliation and tolerance across the world. It proclaimed that “as of now the US relied on direct diplomacy, not the Cold War era tactics to pursue its goals.”

This El-Shifa saga indicates that the real story was the contrary. The dark side of US foreign policy and acts go on. Convoluted, elusive policy declarations, deceptive secrecy and aiding human rights violations were central features of the Clinton administration as well. The deployment of a veil of elaborate falsehoods maintained a disconnect between image and actuality.

This president was particularly adept at using flowery, liberal rhetoric at the same time as his government engaged in detestable conduct. On the one hand, he apologised to the people of Guatemala for the US installation and support of four decades of a brutal regime that killed tens of thousands of native peoples and human rights activists. But he went on providing massive amounts of military assistance to Turkey in its brutal campaign of a similar nature against the Kurdish population. With nearly US$4 billion of US arms, including attack helicopters, hundreds of Kurdish villages were bombed and ravaged, tens of thousands were killed, some two million Kurds were internally displaced, and their civil rights curtailed. On the one hand, he expressed an apology over the many incidents during the Korean War in which US forces had fired on crowds of unarmed civilians in South Korea. But he was totally silent about the fact that in that war the US had fire-bombed North Korean villages and towns and killed over a million civilians. And, during his tenure, it was the standard operating practice for US armed forces in Somalia to target places where large numbers of civilians were gathered; many thousands lost their lives in the process. Yet, he awarded medals to those who were in the forefront of that horrific military campaign (Dowden 1998; Carroll 1999a, 1999b; Kinzer 2007).

One of his major promises when he campaigned for the presidency was to give a post-Cold War ‘peace dividend’ to the American people. But the promised investments in infrastructure never occurred; the US military budget kept on rising; export of arms and military supplies, especially to dictatorial regimes experienced a major boom, US private military contracting firms expanded in size and operations, and US military engagement abroad went on as before. The US became the by far the largest supplier of weaponry in an increasing unstable world (Mann 1999; Rothschild 1999; Silverstein 2000; Tirman 1997). 

With solid British support, his government engaged in a sustained deceptive propaganda campaign about the so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, thereby enabling the continuation of unprecedentedly injurious and tight economic sanctions on Iraq that resulted in the death of nearly three quarters of a million Iraqi people. In the last two years of his rule, the US air force carried out almost weekly bombings of alleged biological and chemical weapons in Iraq. In reality, these were veterinary stations, grain silos, consumer goods plants and the like. He laid the ground work for his successor to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq (Arnove 2000; Cameron 2000; Gordon 2012; Von Sponeck 2006).

And he was no friend of Africa either. Thus, at the time the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies invaded Kosovo, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights and other authorities declared that the conflict in Sierra Leone was far worse. The rebels and government forces both killed civilians and the former chopped off the hands of thousands of their adversaries. Yet, for the purpose of establishing a large enduring military base in the area, he engaged in a full-scale military campaign in Kosovo but could only send a symbolic peace promoting delegation to Sierra Leone (Doyle 1999; Editorial 1999).

During his trip to Africa, he could express only symbolic sorrow over the mammoth immorality of the slave trade. And he expressed symbolic regret about the US ‘inaction’ during the genocide in Rwanda yet failed to ponder deeper on the role played by his Secretary of State in blocking international intervention to halt the mass murder. He was also silent about why his government had fully backed the unconscionable attempts of US drug manufacturers to block South Africa from importing generic drugs to treat HIV infection. The over five years of court room battles had exacted a toll of thousands of African lives. 

An unbiased study of American involvement in Somalia, Sudan, East Timor, Rwanda, Turkey, Colombia, Iraq, Kosovo, Palestine, Sierra Leone, among other places, reveals that Clinton’s policies were profoundly detrimental to human welfare (Bacevich 2013; Pliger 1998). His economic policies in Africa, Asia, Russia and Latin America entailed a major increase in human misery, the multinational corporations and fuelled stupendous economic inequalities everywhere. On the domestic front as well, what he said and did were quite different. He was a loyal servant of the major corporations and the big banks, not the American people (O’Conner 1999; Meeropol 2000; Paglia 1998). The list is too long and the details, too much beyond belief to lay out here (Johnson 2004, 2005, 2007; Kinzer 2007; Perkins 2008).

On the one hand, we got fine words, flowery words and more words. On the other hand, there flowed real bombs, the coddling and arming of dictators, unchanged adherence to militarism and uncompromising pro-corporate economic policies on the domestic and international arenas. 

During the Lewinsky affair, Clinton was pilloried by the media, the leading lights of US society and the public with regards to personal forms of truth and morality. But simultaneously, he was given an open license to conduct business as usual and pursue immoral and criminal policies in the international arena and project false images about them.

The real reasons

The question remains: Why was El-Shifa factory targeted? The issue needs an examination of the broader context. Since the end of World War II, the major strategic goal of the US has been to establish global supremacy on economic, political and military fronts. All nations, small or large, not yet within the US sphere of influence were to be engaged, neutralised and eventually placed under the domination of the US or its principal allies. Since that time, it has thereby built up a massive military machine that has a presence in all the corners of the globe. The military sector is a major and central sector of the US economy. 

Therefore, after the downfall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Eastern Bloc, the Cold War ended but US militarism did not abate. Today, the US operates over 800 military bases across the world, its military budget exceeds that of all its major rivals combined, its armed forced are actively fighting, covertly and overtly, in a large number of theatres and also engage in exercises with a large number of nations. Militarism and war remain integral, crucial parts of the American political and economic landscape today. The Clinton presidency played the key role in ensuring this state of affairs was not just retained but also expanded in the post-Cold War period (Pilger 1998; Ahmad 2001). 

US military actions are never undertaken on the spur of the moment, just at the whim of the president. It has well laid out, long term plans for war like actions in each part of the world. Each engagement it has taken has been in the offing for long. The timing varies according to changing military and political circumstances. The president operates under these overall strategic goals but has some leeway, especially for smaller scale engagements, in terms of timing and scope of the action.

The US also has a well-tuned, mammoth propaganda machinery that operates on the diplomatic, media, cultural and political arenas to project the image it desires about why any military action is taken. And in large measure, it is assisted in this regard by the bulk of the global media. The real reasons almost always remain hidden behind the curtain (Herman and Chomsky 1998; Kinzer 2007; Perkins 2008). 

To accept that the attack on El-Shifa had anything to do with chemical weapons or terrorism makes no objective sense. It was a civilian medicinal factory, pure and simple, and had no connections with Bin Laden. And it was known by the US to be so. To claim that Sudan was involved in the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa was also pure nonsense. Sudan had been in the US cross-hairs for a while, and from the presidential point of view, it was as a good a time as any other to teach it a lesson. 

Such smaller attacks benefit the US military machine in a number of ways. They provide opportunities for testing new weapon systems, serve as selling points for military exports and serve as a warning to the other adversaries. At that time, a small part of the medicines produced at El-Shifa were being exported to Iraq. But it was done legally under the UN Food-for-Oil programme and did not violate the US led sanctions on Iraq. Yet, the bombing gave a clear message: Assist our prime enemy of the day in any way, and you will pay the price. 

Apart from symbolic deeds, US military actions are devoid of moral or ethical qualms. This was amply demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf War and its aftermath. In the case of Sudan, two targets had been planned, El-Shifa and a leather processing plant. But, for some reason, the latter was not attacked. A sweets-manufacturing factory next to El-Shifa was also damaged (Astill 2001; Read 2003).  

Even if the US allegation about chemical weapons in Sudan was true, it in no way justifies a unilateral attack. The case has to be presented before the UN Security Council and relevant international bodies for appropriate action. That is what international law demands. A unilateral military assault on another nation is in itself a major war crime. The Nazi era notion of pre-emptive self-defence is no longer acceptable. The US uses its military, economic and political power to manipulate international organisations and do what it pleases, whenever it pleases. If it serves American strategic goals, international law, norms and organisations are upheld and if they do not, they are unceremoniously tossed aside.

The mendacity relating to El-Shifa was reminiscent of the Reagan administration lies to justify the invasion of Grenada and the Bush era invasion of Panama. The message was clear: All nations of the world be forewarned; if you displease the global emperor, you will be in trouble. Whether or not you have done anything wrong is immaterial. 

It is not a matter of Republicans or Democrats. Bill Clinton promoted the strategic imperial goals set by his predecessors, modified them as the emergent changes in the global geo-politics and economy required and laid a firm foundation for Bush Jr., Obama and Trump to build on. 

In the lead up to the full-scale invasion of Iraq in 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the evidence to justify the invasion to the UN Security Council. In a globally televised talk adorned with elaborate PowerPoint slides, he solemnly detailed the existence of chemical weapons, nuclear weapons material and 18 biological weapon laboratories in Iraq. But immediately after the invasion, it became crystal clear that the whole case was based on elaborate deceptions. There were no such things in Iraq. Yet, despite the destruction of an entire nation and the deaths of tens of thousands, there has been no accountability for the imperial invaders.

And in this era of Trump, projecting abject lies on internal and foreign affairs has reached a new height. Yet, on military issues, he is accorded the benefit of the doubt (Richardson 2017). And the types of deceptions used for attacking Iraq are being recycled for the cases of North Korea and Iran (Lobe and Armbruster 2019). On that front, Donald Trump is not an aberration but the logical product of a long-established tradition; his brashness is novel, but the substance of his deceptive pronouncements follows well laid out imperial foreign policies (Pilger 2008).  

Simply focusing on personalities, be it Clinton, Bush, Obama or Trump does not explain the basis for US government deeds at home or abroad. Especially in these neo-liberal times, it is important to keep the systemic forces, economic and geo-political, that underlie these deeds in mind (Zinn 1998). 

The lessons for Africa

Mention the word ‘El-Shifa’ to a journalist, academician, political scientist or intellectual in Africa today, you will be queried, ‘What are you talking about?’ What should have been a defining educational episode as to the immoral, deceptive and destructive nature of the US policies in Africa has blown away in the wind, expunged from memory. Were Bill Clinton to visit Africa today, he would be welcomed as a great humanitarian whose foundation provides much needed assistance to Africa. His real record would be buried.

With a few exceptions, the print and broadcast media and academics in Africa have accepted the notion of American ‘exceptionalism.’ What they write and say projects the view the US is a champion of democracy, freedom and human rights whose goal is to assist Africa in improving the living conditions of its people and mode of governance. At times, it makes mistakes but overall, unlike the Chinese or Russians, it has good intent. 

But by any factual standard, this is a totally flawed viewpoint. A good examination of the recent and earlier past demonstrates that the US is an imperialist nation whose basic aim is to monopolise and exploit the economic resources and labour of the African people and dominate the continent in political, military and cultural matters. That is the bottom line and should be recognised as such by African activists, intellectuals and leaders. But political timidity, opportunism, material rewards and a contrived lack of knowledge influence them to ignore the reality and veer towards the super power promoted superficialities.

Acceptance of US unilateralism or special status is to the profound detriment of the welfare and interests of the people of Africa. It serves to undercut the attempts by the African people to reduce the tentacles of external dependency, stand on their own feet and struggle to institute democratic, accountable and people-oriented governance. As has been wisely proclaimed:

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history. George Orwell

 If we can so easily forget that barely 20 years ago common drugs to treat human and animal diseases in Africa were effectively branded as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ by the most powerful person in the world and a large stockpile was destroyed by a unilateral barrage of cruise missiles, where is the hope for formulating a clear path towards African liberation? Too many horrific incidents and policies of the distant and recent past that were initiated, funded or fomented by the imperial powers in Africa (and elsewhere) have been placed in the drawers of history that almost no one consults these days. Instead, we remain mired in the flawed views and portraits propagated by the perpetrators of the dastardly deeds. 

Genuine African liberation requires formulation of a comprehensive strategy that is fully and accurately cognisant of the basic historic and current economic, political and social realities. It needs an awareness of the role played by imperialism and external domination (in conjunction with their local allies) in instituting economic and political mechanisms that inhibit the development of the continent and foment instability and inequality. We need to counter the elegant but deceptive rhetoric emanating from imperial sources and the local politicians who are bound to the neoliberal system.

Without such an understanding, the modern African youth will remain ensnared by so-called donor initiated and funded ideas and activities. Floundering in a neoliberal ideological logjam, they will not be inclined to work towards goals that are based on inter-African solidarity, African self-reliance, equality and social justice. 

Intellectual self-determination acquired via a scientific method is the first step in the path to genuine material and political progress. The older generation of African activists, academics and intellectuals, including the many who know better, have, for the most part, abdicated their basic responsibility to enlighten the youth on this score. It is well past high time to change that.

Armed with the knowledge of our past, we can charter a course for our future. Only by knowing where we’ve been can, we know where we are and look to where we want to go. Malcolm X

 * Karim F Hirji is a retired Professor of Medical Statistics and Fellow, Tanzania Academy of Sciences. 


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