Kenya’s blundering mission in Somalia

Kenya, fearing damage to the tourism trade, has sent troops to secure its borders and battle al-Shabaab in Somalia.

kenyan troops
Al-Shabaab has called for “big blasts” in retaliation for Kenya’s decision to send troops into Somalia [EPA]

Kenya’s surprisingly brave march into southern Somalia, which began in mid-October, brings to mind the analogy of Kenya as a clumsy, overgrown, weak-muscled 17-year-old stumbling onto a rainy, muddy battlefield for the very first time. Weighed down by his kalashnikov and ego, he fiddles about to get his aim right, but his younger, more agile, bloodthirsty opponent is already waiting with his weapon cocked and ready to fire.

Until now, independent Kenya had never been to war or led a military intervention into another state. After 20 years of deftly avoiding resurrecting old neighbourly grudges and becoming directly involved in Somalia’s war, the Kenyan government finally decided to take the plunge.

On October 16, an estimated 3,000 Kenyan troops marched into Somalia to battle with the ‘terrorist’ and tourist menace that is al-Shabaab. On a mission to protect the nation’s “territorial intergrity”, Kenyan forces are attempting to secure the northern border with Somalia, an unstable region where the killing and abduction of Western tourists, aid workers, and Kenyans has made the news. Allegedly the work of al-Shabaab, the escalation in murder of Westerners has been an important catalyst, but not the sole reason for this armed intervention.

Buffers or proxies?

From providing intelligence support to recruiting and training Somali soldiers – even paying warlords to create a buffer zone between itself and its warring neighbour – Kenya has long sought to protect itself from Somalia’s mortars and missiles. So, too, has Ethiopia.

Since 1996, Ethiopia has tried to create a large safety belt to contain Somalia’s fighting and to block neighbouring Eritrea from gaining more ground in its border war with Ethiopia. Using Somalia’s crisis to wage its own proxy wars, Eritrea allegedly funds and arms anti-Ethiopian Somali Sufi factions while Ethiopia reportedly arms pro-Somali government militias. Currently, Ethiopian troops occasionally move in and out of southern Somalia’s Gedo region, a buffer zone. The troops are trying to contain the fighting between Ethiopian rebel separatist movements and Sufi Somali factions against Somalia’s interim government and Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s attempt at securing a safe space has largely resulted in propping up proxy militias, while Kenya’s dream of constructing a similar region has been focused on recruiting and dispatching Somali troops to man the border region. More concretely, support has been given to Somalia’s latest independent breakaway, Azania (also known as Jubaland).

The Juba Valley is home to 1.3 million people whose clans have clashed with each other, the Somali army and al-Shabaab insurgents. Jubaland is also the operational base of a separatist rebel movement, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, whose calls for the secession of the Ogaden region in Ethiopia have led to violent confrontations with the Ethiopian army. A 2010 WikiLeaks cable describes the Ethiopian government as “not enthusiastic about Kenya’s Jubaland initiative, but is sharing intelligence with Kenya and hoping for success”.

“We need a huge blow against Kenya. Hand grenades hurled can harm them, but we want huge blasts.

– Al-Shabaab leaders

Abdi Gandhi, a professor and former defence minister who is currently the president of Azania, promised Kenya to “liberate Jubaland of extremists”, but has not quite made it to his office yet. According to Reuters news agency, Gandhi spends most of his time in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. Most of the progress made on Jubaland’s terrorist frontiers in recent months has been due to the efforts of the Somali and Kenyan national armies.

A hotbed of inter-clan tension, violent separatism and anti-foreign sentiment, Kenya’s intervention into Jubaland seriously risks stoking the fires of ethnic Somali nationalism. Very real sentiments of pan-Somali solidarity exist among ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Kenya’s North Eastern Province. A call to arms could unite Islamist insurgents with nationalist clans to push out foreign forces.

Already opposed to Azania’s partial autonomy, Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed openly disapproved of Kenyan boots on the ground. Al-Shabaab leaders have called for bombings: “The Kenyan Mujahideen who were trained by Osama in Afghanistan, stop throwing grenades at buses. We need a huge blow against Kenya. Hand grenades hurled can harm them, but we want huge blasts,” urged Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, an Islamist rebel group spokesman to crowds gathered in Elasha, near Mogadishu.

History repeats itself

Commenting on Kenya’s intervention, last week, former US ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn said the best scenario would be for Kibaki’s forces to secure the towns and “try to replace al-Shabaab with Somali forces friendly to Kenya”. It’s a valid expectation given that Mogadishu finally fell to Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces this past August. But, in classic al-Shabaab style, Mogadishu experienced a delayed, heavy retaliation in recent weeks, which cost Burundi’s peacekeeping force over 60 lives.

History also shows that far superior armies have failed against al-Shabaab. In early November 1993, American and UN peacekeepers were humiliatingly defeated in a two-day bloody battle against Somali militiamen. Years later, Ethiopia tried too, and licked the same bitter wounds of defeat.

In 2006, a US-backed Ethiopian army marched into the Somali capital, triumphed over the original al-Shabaab, and handed Mogadishu over to the TFG. But local clansmen and clerics irked by Ethiopia’s invasion joined forces with the militant wing of the overthrown Islamic Courts Union, a collective of Sharia courts which formed a “rebel government” that, until Ethiopia troops’ arrival, had presided over southern Somalia, including Mogadishu. Driven by a mix of nationalist-jihadist sentiment, the new al-Shabaab marched into the capital and took back the city from one of Africa’s biggest and best-trained armies.

Militarily, Kenya is far weaker than Ethiopia. President Mwai Kibaki’s government does not have the budget for a lengthy fight as Zenawi did. After days of keeping up the official line: “The United States is not participating in Kenya’s current operation in Somalia,” the US alongside France are finally partners in Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Protect the Nation), as it’s officially known. The assistance is a welcome boost for the Kenyans, but whether air strikes and logistical support will be enough to defeat fervent anti-Western nationalists and extremists is another matter entirely.

An eye for an eye

As the most consistently stable nation in the region, Kenya hosts the headquarters of many NGOs in East Africa and boasts a $750m tourism industry, which has been badly affected by al-Shabaab’s abductions and murders of Western holidaymakers. 

I am telling the mujahideen that Kenya is your port … take from them in return.

– Sheikh Muktar Roobow Abu Mansor

According to a UN Monitoring Group Report, rebel-controlled Kismayo and Afmadow are key points for a $100m business made in cash from an array of political and religious extortionist taxes. These include port and airport fees for ships and planes docking at the coastal cities, as well as “jihad contributions” from nationalists and international jihadists.

The money, which goes towards paying al-Shabaab’s young fighters, is also said to be generated through an extensive sugar and charcoal smuggling network, which transports the goods in bulk throughout the region.

Cutting off the terrorists’ livelihood to preserve one’s own may seem a smart move, but al-Shabaab will not let its main port bases, Kismayo and Afmadow, fall to Kenya without fierce resistance. Sheikh Muktar Roobow Abu Mansor, an al-Shabaab leader, told hundreds of supporters to fight tit for tat. “I am telling the mujahideen that Kenya is your port; go to their banks, guests, and go to all the places they keep their treasury. Take from them in return.” And take they will.

Creating a buffer against al-Shabaab is a scary prospect for a country that’s never been to war. If Ethiopia’s record is any sign of what’s to come, then Operation Linda Nchi will be a difficult win. It’s been a hard sell to Kenya’s independent media, whose pages carry opinion editorials weighing up the costs and risks of intervention with each breaking news headline.

However, Somalis living in the small towns of Dhobley and Qoqani, which the Kenyans have taken over, are broadly supportive of military action. It’s understandable, as these people have lived through years of al-Shabaab’s terror, but only up to a point. When 750,000 people are in dire need of humanitarian aid, there is no easy moral justification for what Kenya and its supporting cast of bombers, France and the US, are doing. Achieving stability in Jubaland is a noble goal, but this armed intervention risks displacing and starving even more people.

At the beginning of this week, Kenyan jets killed five non-combatants and injured 45 at a refugee camp near Jilib. According to international law, bombing camps for internally-displaced persons contravenes the rules of modern military engagement. The Americans and French are yet to kill, but when they do, more rules could be broken. The civilian body count will rise.

And when Kenyans start coming home in coffins by the dozen, the gravity of war will begin to sink into the hearts of rabid pro-intervention nationalists. Maybe then Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki might think back to the moment he ‘hesitated before giving the green light’ and do the unthinkable: consider negotiating with the terrorists.

Tendai Marima (PhD) is an independent researcher and correspondent currently based in Southern Africa. Follow her on Twitter.

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