JUST AS Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania intervened in 1979 in Uganda when Idi Amin sent troops across their mutual border, so 4,000 Kenyan soldiers and naval ships are intervening across its border with Somalia, pushing back and conceivably reducing the hold of al-Shabaab between Ras Kamboni – already secured – and Mogadishu. In mid-week, Kenyan troops were advancing on Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s key port, and Afmadow in Central Jubaland.
In African hands
Kenya is responding both to unrelenting refugee pressure on its social services – it hosts the largest refugee camp in the world – and to the capture from Kenya of foreign tourists and aid workers by Somalis conceivably in league with al-Shabaab. Kenya’s tourist industry on its warm, inviting Indian Ocean coast has been destroyed, at least temporarily, by Somali incursions. So has the sanctity of international demarcation lines been pierced. Whether or not the Kenyan military thrust into southern Somalia succeeds effortlessly to eliminate al-Shabaab as a destabilizing force, or whether the Kenyans merely reduce al-Shabaab’s impunity, it is as clear in this case as in the earlier Tanzanian case that neighbors in Africa must take offensive matters into their own hands. Neither the African Union nor the United Nations can be relied upon to protect African countries that consider themselves under attack.
Africa was pleased when Nyerere removed the despotic Amin. So will Africa and most Somalis be pleased if Kenya – supported by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government’s soldiers – breaks the hold of al-Shabaab on southern Somalia. The Nation of Nairobi reports that advancing Kenyan forces were “hailed as heroes” when they overcame al-Shabaab resistance near Dhobley in southern Somalia. A Kenyan major said that local Somalis were providing excellent information about al-Shabaab hideouts.
Vested interest all round
According to Kenyans, France and the US have been assisting the Kenyan advance, the French more overtly. (Both American and French official responses have been much more tentative about the roles that they are playing in the Kenyan advance, if any.) A French ship allegedly shelled a town south of Kismayo. France may have supplied equipment to the Kenyans as well. American drones are reported to have targeted fleeing al-Shabaab legions north of Ras Kamboni. American aircraft may also be responsible for attacks on Kismayo. France was angered by the Somali capture of an elderly French tourist in Kenya, and her subsequent death in captivity. France and the US – and Kenya – also seek the lessening of al Qaeda influence in Somalia and its possible spread down the East African coast. Al-Shabaab claims to be affiliated to al Qaeda, but the extent to which it has been financed by the late Osama bin Laden and his cohort is unclear.
Kenya, the rest of Africa and the West have a strong interest in ending the maritime piracy and the ancillary pernicious holding for ransom of tourists and aid workers. The Kenyan incursion into Somalia – if it continues long enough and penetrates deeply into Somalia – may assist in making piracy less lucrative. Certainly, it should make it more difficult for Somalis to intrude into the nearby tourist havens of coastal Kenya.
The Kenyan intervention has also won the important endorsement on Friday of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), an association of seven east and northeast African states. IGAD further asked the UN to impose a blockade on Kismayo to prevent al-Shabaab from obtaining transhipment and smuggling income.
Kenyans ready for battle?
When the Ethiopians entered Somalia in cooperation with the then Transitional Federal Government of Somalia and the US, they constituted a formidable and battle-tested force that easily overran Islamist brigades – precursors to al-Shabaab. But Ethiopian suzerainty was heartily disliked and resented by Somalia. When the official Somali government could not organize itself well or honestly, and when the US essentially refused to provide Ethiopia with funds to compensate Ethiopia for its Somali costs, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pulled his troops out in 2009. The rise of al-Shabaab followed.
Al-Shabaab, today’s Islamist power, rules southern Somalia with a heavier hand than its predecessors. Likewise, the recent bloody battles for Mogadishu, and the presence this year and last in Mogadishu of African Union peacekeeping troops from Uganda and Burundi, may provide Kenyans with a sustainable better reception from ordinary Somalis.
Observers worry that the Kenyans are less battle-tested than were the Ethiopians, but so far they are meeting little effective resistance and taking only limited casualties. Only the possible lack of political will in Kenya may limit how far they go and the extent to which they destroy the hold of al-Shabaab.
Any drive hundreds of kilometers north into Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab will prove costly. There have been no reports of financial backing from the US, but a subvention of some kind is not impossible.
A Somali renaissance to follow?
Kenya is also moving wisely as well against Somalis in Nairobi itself. The Eastleigh section of Nairobi has long been known as a Somali haven. There are suspicions that some of the recent taking of tourists and aid workers on Kenyan soil were directed from Eastleigh. Likewise, some wealthy Somalis there, and in Dubai, are intimately involved with al-Shabaab, the pirates, and the “independent” warlords of both southern Somalia and Puntland. So far, Kenya has been careful to target only suspects from Somalia, not Kenyan Somalis. It also successfully captured one of the alleged grenade throwers – and his supply of weapons – supposedly responsible for causing mayhem this week in downtown Nairobi. He claimed to be an al-Shabaab adherent.
Given the ineffectiveness of the African Union or other international consortia, Idi Amin’s removal was accomplished by an angry neighbor. Ugandans were then able to begin to move toward democratic rule. If Kenya triumphs in southern Somalia, the renaissance of Somalia could likewise follow.
Published in Think Africa Press on October 27th, 2011