Kenya is at war. This mantra is repeated over and over ad infinitum by government officials and pro-establishment types. At a time of military conflict, we are told, peacetime rules and conventions do not apply and we should be prepared to give up some of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. But really, are we at war?
“We are in a war against terrorists in and outside our country,” declared President Uhuru Kenyatta in December. He was, of course, referring to the confrontation with the extremist and murderous terror group, al-Shabab, which has killed hundreds of Kenyans in the last four years.
Most of these deaths have come in the wake of the October 2011 invasion of Somalia, whose goal was initially proclaimed to be the pursuit of kidnappers and to push al-Shabab away from our borders.
Despite the banner headlines at the time, there was no official declaration of war, either against Somalia or against al-Shabab.
In fact, there has since been no such declaration, which according to the constitution would have required the authorisation of parliament.
State at war?
But if Kenya is not exactly a de jure state at war, is it in a de facto state of war? There is no doubt, as the president has noted, that “our country and our people are under attack”.
Since 2012, more than 600 people have been killed by al-Shabab, who continue to threaten to paint Kenyan cities red with blood.
However, it is far from clear that the country’s response to the terrorists could reasonably be characterised as a military conflict. The troops in Somalia, who neither caught up with the kidnappers nor succeeded in pushing al-Shabab from our borders, quickly shifted goal posts and declared their objective to be the capture of the Somali port of Kismayo, which was achieved a year later.
By then, the troops had been relabelled as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia and were, at least nominally, taking their orders from the Force Commander in Mogadishu and not the Ministry of Defence in Nairobi.
Although the Kenya Defence Forces are today routinely deployed within Kenya, they are not always, or even predominantly, fighting against the al-Shabab.
Today, with a battalion having been withdrawn to make way for Sierra Leone, under 4,000 troops remain in AMISOM.
Although the Kenya Defence Forces are today routinely deployed within Kenya, they are not always, or even predominantly, fighting against al-Shabab. In fact, in many instances, it has been deployed to quell internecine conflict between Kenyan communities. If deploying the KDF is an act of war, then Kenya is as much at war with itself as it is with al-Shabab.
In truth, the battle against al-Shabab has been much more a policing than a military action, though it is frequently described, as I have just done, in language from the latter.
As a matter of fact, on two occasions at Westgate where 68 people were slaughtered and most recently in Garissa where at least 148 perished – the deployment of the KDF to do a job the specialised police unit known as Recce Company should have been doing, was cited as a major failure.
Reports on other terrorist incidents such as the June 2014 Mpeketoni attacks which left about 70 dead, mainly blamed problems within the police service not the military, from divided command to corruption, for poor responses.
In Somalia too, Kenya is not prosecuting a war against al-Shabab. AMISOM, where Kenya is one of several principals, is. AMISOM’s objective is not, at least directly, to protect the Kenyan border, but rather to support and protect the government in Mogadishu. Sure AMISOM is mandated to eliminate al-Shabab. But given the reports of the Kenyan contingent’s involvement in illicit trade that benefits al-Shabab immensely such as the smuggling of charcoal and sugar, it is debatable whether they are particularly focused on this objective.
Kenya is at war in the sense Australia or Canada are at war. Both nations have deployed troops abroad to fight as part of a coalition confronting extremists. Both have suffered terror attacks, though nowhere near what Kenya has experienced.
Most would immediately see the incongruity of suggesting that Canadians and Australian accept “wartime” restrictions on their liberties (which is not to say such restriction is not attempted). But Kenya, with its much greater familiarity with terrorist attack is an easier target for the argument.
Multitude of sins
In the 1997 Barry Levinson movie, Wag The Dog, the US administration fabricates a war with Albania to distract the public from a sex scandal on the eve of an presidential election.
Similarly, in Kenya today, the talk of war is intended to mask a multitude of sins on the part of the government and security agents. It is thus not unusual to hear “operational security” to avoid public scrutiny. Or to hear that, as one commentator tweeted, “It is incongruous [to] deem it practical that counterterrorist activities [be] governed by peacetime procedures/rules.”
The idea of a literal war on terrorism, as opposed to the figurative “wars” on corruption and drugs, is meant to generate a climate of fear and foster an unthinking and unquestioning patriotism. This provides not only the carpet under which the government seeks to sweep its failure to fundamentally reform and fix the country’s security system, but also the justification for a clampdown on dissent.
Andrew Franklin, a Nairobi-based security analyst, notes: “Kenya is not at war. As archaic as it may sound, wars are declared and fought between states or coalitions of states. This is not mere sophistry since declarations of war justify extraordinary – and temporary – restrictions on all manner of normal domestic activities and curbs on many constitutionally protected freedoms. This is why going to war is considered a big deal and not just a matter of semantics.”
Patrick Gathara is a strategic communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.