Kenya versus al-Shabab

Foreign intervention in Somalia is damaging, according to the country’s emerging civic moderates.

AU somalia
Many Somalis believe that foreign intervention in their country is causing more harm than good [EPA]

The intervention of external forces in Somalia has consistently plunged Somalia into greater destruction. Is it even possible to compound the suffering of a famine-stricken population? Once again, we find ourselves at a familiar junction: Destructive, illegal intervention, the continuation of internal chaotic violence and a new indignation.

This situation need not deteriorate further.

As far as Somalia is concerned, this time calls for a new solution – that is, one that comes from neither foreign forces invading the country, nor from violent factions within Somalia terrorising the population. For those who don’t yet know, Somalia is experiencing a quiet, yet significant, change: The Somali people have found a third way; one that is a civic-minded, progressive political movement. And this effort is gaining enthusiastic support amongst Somalis inside and outside the country.

The current crisis facing Somalia today is unprecedented, and has so far been faced with paralysis and intransigence. Further, unlike the tsunami and earthquakes that have traumatised populations in other parts of the world, the Somali situation was foretold and attempts were made to raise the alarm ahead of the tragedy – unfortunately those cries fell on deaf ears.

The result was predictable: A lot of hand-wringing, soul-searching and raking over the ashes of the world’s most pressing humanitarian concern. Yet, the world continues to somnambulate through the problem even as the situation deteriorates and the problem becomes more complex.

This is a haven for those with a terrorist or self-interest agenda that seeks to exploit a power vacuum and a vulnerable population. Enter Kenya and al-Shabaab.
Somalia has been unfortunate for at least two decades during which time warlords and all other merchants of violence have devastated the country’s human existence. Al-Shabaab has been the latest of these groups to impose severe misery on the population by denying them the basic right to choose their legitimate leaders and access to food aid – thus condemning them to famine.

Into Kenya

In one of its most barbaric and recent assaults on the civilian populations, al-Shabaab massacred over 70 young Somali students who gathered to find out the results of their academic examination.

In addition, the violent adventures of al-Shabaab have reached other location in the East African region; as witnessed by the bombing of the sports bar in Kampala in 2010, and the kidnapping of hapless tourists as well as aid workers who were serving Somalis made destitute by famine in Kenya.


Inside Story: Kenya’s influence in Somalia’s war

Kenya responded forcefully to al-Shabaab’s acts by bombing presumed locations inside Somalia – such as the Kismayo harbour, Afmado, and others. As if on cue of contradicting itself, the inept Transitional Federal Government (TFG) leadership first acknowledged that it had given Kenya the permission to undertake these operations without parliamentary approval, but as Kenya inserted its ground forces into Southern Somalia, the TFG leadership back-peddled and claimed that it had never consented to Kenya’s intervention. 

In return, Kenyan leaders lambasted the TFG leadership and accused them of complicity with al-Shabaab, unless it officially endorsed the intervention. Hurriedly, the Somali PM flew to Nairobi and signed a memorandum of agreement with his Kenyan counterpart without a sanction from the other officers and organs of the TFG, let alone a briefing of the Somali people. 

To be sure, Kenya has every right to defend itself against al-Shabaab. That said, the key question here is not whether or not this should happen but rather how, when and, above all, who should be targeted.

Thus far, Kenya’s military response seems indiscriminate and, therefore, Somalis and al-Shabaab have become synonymous. The consequences have been the destruction of civilian lives and property. In addition, Kenya has ordered the population of the 10 largest towns in deep, southern Somalia to evacuate in order to demolish what Kenya considers al-Shabaab targets. So far, the citizens of these towns have not been offered an alternative refuge.
RIP Somalia?

Is the country condemned to eternal damnation? With all of the focus on either the war on terror, warlords, famine and disputations over which local potentates neighbouring states and the West should support, it is easy for the moderates and the voice of reason to be lost in Somalia.

This is not a zero-sum game and there is a middle ground: A nascent progressive Somali alternative opposed to all the destructive and demeaning madness, has arrived on the stage.

Consequently, no sane and serious efforts to revive Somalia can exclude this new civic movement. The perspective of this progressive alternative is informed by this political point of view: The Somali people must be allowed the right to determine their political future and to choose their leaders without external meddling, as is currently the case. This is what distinguishes us. We are also realists and, therefore, acknowledge the Herculean task before us – one that requires practical intelligence, courage, determination and supreme patience. 

Furthermore, we are acutely cognisant of the dearth of human capital and financial resources. But unlike our predecessors, we are prepared to win the great battle of national reconstitution not through a cowering the Somali population but by:

  • Redeeming the recent past from self-destruction
  • Inspiring and empowering our people
  • Convincing the genuinely sympathetic members of the rest of the world that the Somali people are ready to do the right thing for their country.

We are prepared to undertake this historic assignment with imaginative vision, achievable policies and rigorous discipline – always accompanied by a healthy dose of realism.

There are good reasons for Somalia and Kenya to cooperate on matters beneficial to both peoples. However, for such cooperation to be legitimate and balanced, both sides must bring their combined and best thinking, honesty, mutual respect and candour to the re-building of the relationship with the understanding that Somalia’s current vulnerability must not be exploited by those who claim to want to help it.

In particular, Kenya’s claims about fighting al-Shabaab must not be used as pretext for extending its influence by involving itself in domestic Somali conflicts. Despite our strong sympathy for Kenya’s concern about terrorist acts against its citizens, there is still material evidence that Kenya has not been an honest neighbour of Somalia. As a matter of fact,  its meddling in Somalia’s domestic political contestation have created circumstances which make Kenya party to the mess in Somalia; which in turn enables unsavoury groups like al-Shabaab to flourish.

Dysfunctional TFG

There are, at least, three instances in which Kenya consciously sided with Somali warlord-cum political actors. First, Kenya hosted the discredited Somali Reconciliation which produced a dysfunctional TFG dominated by warlords. The chair of that conference was none other than Ambassador Kiplagat – the man who enabled the Ethiopian government to have a free hand in selecting a significant number of the voting delegates.

In the early days of the conference, Ethiopian and Kenyan Security officers met in Kenya where the Ethiopians urged Kenya not to waste this opportunity to fix Somalia forever. Second, Kenya wittingly collaborated with Ethiopia during the latter’s bloody invasion of southern Somalia by closing the Somali-Kenya border and by renditioning fleeing Somalis to Ethiopia where many were tortured and some still languish in prison. 

Third, the “dual-track” strategy towards Somalia, designed by the US, that came into effect last year has had the effect of further fracturing the political map of Somalia by endorsing “development of regions”. 

Now, an ever growing number of artificial and clanistic regions led by instrumentalist leaders are making the warlord fiefdoms of yesteryears look like child’s play. There are now over 15 individuals who claim to be “presidents” of those regions. In some cases, there are more than one “president” to a region! 

“Dual track” has become a  profitable licence to seek aid-largesse as well as to use the region as a bargaining chip in the presumed federal order that is supposed to replace the transitional disorder. To take advantage of this Bantustan-like chaos, Kenya has assisted the formation of one such region in Somalia’s deep south. Earlier this year, a sectarian group met in Nairobi and formed what they have called “Azania” with a former anthropologist as “president”.

There is enough evidence pointing to the Government of Kenya’s interest in the creation of such a region for sometime. Recently, WikiLeaks released a document stating this fact. We learn from WikiLeaks that even Kenya’s long-time ally, Ethiopia, is worried about Kenya’s approach.

A new hope

For Ethiopia, if such a region comes to pass, it might embolden and provide refuge or camps for the Ogaden Liberation Front which has been fighting for independence from Ethiopia. “Azania” immediately declared war on al-Shabaab with the clear assistance from Kenya. Consequently, this strongly suggests that Kenya has been aiding “Azanian” militias long before the recent al-Shabaab kidnappings. Such an involvement undercuts Kenya’s claim that its actions are only a just response to a violation of its national wellbeing.
We believe that there is a peaceful and progressive alternative to the current descent into war.

First, the government of Kenya can claim that it is a victim of al-Shabaab but it cannot, at the same time, legitimately maintain to be innocent. Second, it must understand that a vibrant, orderly and democratic Somalia is in Kenya’s long-term interest. This should not be difficult to comprehend given the benefits of Kenya’s unfinished democratic transformation to its citizens.

Third, linking up with and endorsing the activities of committed and independent Somali civics set to reclaim their democratic tradition is the wise thing to do. Fourth, cultivating goodwill with the Somali people at this hour of their need by genuinely supporting humanitarian aid will pay neighbourly dividends for generations to come.

Fifth, both Kenyan authorities and the new movement of Somali progressives ought to reclaim the genuine spirit of Pan-Africanism – one that will centre mutualities that promote pluralism, tolerance and the pursuit of  strategies of development that bring much needed value to regional welfare. 

Such a dramatic change of mentality and action promises to be a win-win phase of a new regional history. The immediate upshot will be: The people of Somalia freed from the tyranny of al-Shabaab, warlords and the incompetent TFG, Somalia spared from further descent into fragmentation and the safety and security of Kenya ensured.

Abdi Ismail Samatar is a Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota and research fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is also a founding member of a new progressive political party in Somalia called Hiil Quran.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.