When will Kenya withdraw its troops from Somalia? The highly publicized military intervention in pursuit of Al Shabaab is no longer a subject of public discussion. Kenya seems to be pushing a hidden agenda in south Somalia and its military presence there is beginning to look like an occupation
Kenya’s intervention in Somalia October 2011, the first since the country’s independence, came as a surprise to many observers in the Horn of Africa. The raison d’être for intervening according to Kenya was to pursue Al Shabaab members who allegedly abducted aid workers in Northern Kenya and kidnapped tourist along the coast.
While at the beginning of intervention this sounded plausible, and even reasonable given genuine security threats posed to Kenya by the Al Shabaab, the shifting dynamics in the port city of Kismayo raise questions regarding the goal of the intervention. Recent events reveal Kenya is keen in establishing a ‘sphere of influence’ through Jubaland, which puts the Al Shabaab theory to a stern test.
Since the intervention, the blowback has been evident - there is deteriorating security especially along the areas bordering Somalia, as well as Nairobi where a series of grenade attacks has been witnessed, calling into question the rationale of sending out troops when the country cannot maintain domestic security, as well as failure to secure its long porous border before intervening. It is plausible there was no great deal of thinking through the intervention; what is evident is a knee jerk reaction.
While some of the grenade attacks have been the work of opportunistic criminal groups and rival business groups, some like the attack in a church in Garissa bear the hallmark Al Shabaab. And they have claimed as such through their twitter handle.
LIBERATORS OR OCCUPIERS- KISMAYO CONUNDRUM
Striking a somewhat righteous if not opportunistic posture, that we cannot allow Somalia to be perpetually ungovernable and pose security threat to Kenya, many Kenyans and their officials supported the intervention uncritically. And the initial triumphalism note, almost unseen jingoism in media imagery prevented many from asking questions about the entire enterprise. For a country that hardly agrees on anything, such support for a government’s project was remarkable.
But the official line about ‘altruism’ seems to be wearing thin against naked ‘realpolitik’ displayed by the Kenya Defense Forces in Kismayo – with their single minded determination to establish a sphere of influence in Juba-land, Kenya has but dropped the ‘saving’ Somalia narrative.
There is an obvious rationale for wanting to control Kismayo - the strategic port is the nerve center of sea trade and when it was controlled by Al Shabaab, it provided the group with ready income. But taking full control of Kismayo is not a straight-forward affair because of several interlocking and competing interests. This is where Kenya needs to take cognizance of Somalia’s history - the radioactive nature of internal Somali clan dynamic, especially to any external actor like Kenya with questionable finesse; many before Kenya have burned their fingers. Any attempt to get involved in the treacherous waters of local domestic clan politics doesn’t end well. As of now, Kenya seems to be walking straight into the local clan politics with their eyes open with their support for Shekh Ahmed Madobe, and by extension his clan, at the exclusion, fundamentally, of the government in Mogadishu, which is at loggerheads with Madobe, as well as other clans. Theoretically, Kenya has legitimate reason for siding with Madobe; he provided the key fighters that liberated Kisamyo.
In a display of misguided naivety recently, with implicit support of KDF, a minister from central government was mistreated when he visited Kismayo, a move that undermines the authority of the new president who is attempting to establish a proper functioning state. All the talk of federalism is self-fulfilling prophecy and mask the nefarious interest of Kenya which, as of now, is aligned to Madobe and his clans. If the people in Kismayo want a devolved authority, that is nominally answerable to Mogadishu but autonomous at the same time, that discussion should be left to the Somalis themselves. Trying to influence such outcome is counterproductive and dangerous in the long run. But if devolution is nothing but Kenya’s attempt at establishing a satellite state remote controlled from Nairobi, then it reeks of sheer opportunism.
WITHER AL SHABAAB?
Counter intuitively, the only beneficiary of the above mess is inevitably the Al Shabaab whose stock in trade for recruitment is the weak central government - clearly the present government is struggling to establish its authority whilist attempting to balance several competing interests within and without. Further, rhetorically Al Shabaab bills itself as the vanguard of Somalia against external forces, the mere presence of Kenya inside Somalia is a perfect storm for the group; it will provide them raison d'etre for ‘liberating’ Somalia from the infidels.
This will potentially undo any gains made since intervention, and make Al Shabaab look good - they transcend clan divisions, and could easily be use another opportunity to endear themselves to the disaffected population and to ramp up their attacks inside Kenya.
Acute internal contradictions within the group were more existential than any external interventions - the pan-Somalia nationalist espoused by Aweis and the transnational jihadist wing of Godane - nom de guerre of 'Abu Zubeir’ - was difficult to reconcile. The recent departure of Shekh Aweis, regarded as the father of jihad movement in Somalia, the alleged killing of Ibrahim al-Afghani, and fleeing of the group’s spokesman Mukhtar Robbow reveal a serious power struggle within the group. But what is going on in Kismayo gives the group a second chance, similar to the 2006 Ethiopia’s invasion.
The group continues to carry out attacks despite all the divisions, the most recent being the attack of the UN compound in Mogadishu. Additionally, in order to prove his mantle after the purge, Godane could carry out a ‘spectacular’ attack to entrench his position internally. Further, the recent departure will strengthen his hands, and he could consolidate and run the group as a disciplined force.
If Kenya ever needed any reason to outline their exit plan, the recent leaked letter from Somali’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is a harbinger of what the future holds for the KDF troops is in Somalia. The lack of a clear withdrawal time-table from the outset provided a sort cart blanche, but the danger with an open-ended intervention is the ever-lurking danger of mission creep, which is clearly evident throughout the intervention. The window when Kenya was regarded as liberators has long closed, and with it the tremendous goodwill of the Somalis. Continued indefinite stay and interference in the internal politics, will make the AMISOM mission in Somalia, which was billed as Africa’s solution to Africa’s problem, look like an occupation.
* Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a Horn of Africa analyst