Kenya and Somalia: landscape of tension
Daniel Branch <http://www.opendemocracy.net/author/daniel-branch
> , 24
"Kenya doesn't know war. We know war." A fractious mix of violence and
politics is unsettling the relationship between east African neighbours and
putting more pressure on Somalis living in Kenya. The Somali militia group
known as al-Shabaab is often viewed as the source of the problem. But the
roots of the turmoil go deep in Kenya's own history, says Daniel Branch.
About the author
Daniel Branch is an
/> assistant professor in history at the University of Warwick. He is the
Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and
Decolonization (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and
> Kenya: Between Hope
and Despair, 1963-2010 (Yale University Press, 2011)
Kenya's troubled relationship with Somalia and its own population of ethnic
Somali citizens is coming to a head. Kenyan troops crossed the border on 16
October 2011 as Operation Linda Nchi ("Protect the Nation") got underway. In
response, hundreds of fighters from the Somali militia called al-Shabaab
converged on the town of Afmadow in southern Somalia to meet them.
In an ominous sign of the most likely trajectory of this expedition, a
> suicide-attack on 19
October close to the building in Mogadishu hosting talks between Kenyan and
Somali ministers killed five people. Al-Shabaab has threatened further
attacks on Nairobi. "Kenya doesn't know war. We know war", the group's
> spokesman told the
BBC. "The tall buildings in Nairobi will be destroyed."
The attacks in <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10602791
> Kampala in July 2010
suggest that Kenyans would do well to heed the warning. The grenade-attack
on a bar in Nairobi on the night of 23-24 October hich injured thirteen
rss> adds to its immediacy. But Kenyans would also be advised to look even
closer to home to understand why it is they find their
> country at war.
The insecurity complex
To some observers, the Kenyan government is behaving creditably. "African
countries that step up to tackle an African problem, rather than sitting
back and then complaining when the West tries to do it for them, are to be
lia> writes the Guardian's Simon Tisdall. There is some merit to the
argument that Kenya is simply reacting to provocation from across the
border. Many outside Kenya are familiar with the
> murder of David Tebbutt
and the <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-14943300
> abductions of his
wife Judith, the now-deceased
> Marie Dedieu, and the
> workers Blanca
Thiebaut and Montserrat Serra.
But readers or viewers outside Kenya may be less familiar with the
+/-/1056/1257864/-/kw0vw3z/-/index.html> disruption to humanitarian efforts,
> raids on border-posts, and
> fears of terrorist attacks
in Nairobi caused by al-Shabaab. It is worth noting that no evidence has yet
been provided by the Kenyan government that al-Shabaab carried out the
abductions; while this seems plausible, little effort has been made in
Nairobi to prove the case for war.
The actions of the Kenyan military in the second half of October 2011 are,
in many respects, an extension of
existing policy. The Kenyan police have long been providing training to
their Somali counterparts on behalf of the Transitional National Government
in Mogadishu. The Kenyan government has also made considerable efforts to
bolster anti-al-Shabaab militias in southern Somalia, including the
recruitment of Kenyan-Somalis on the Kenyan
> side of the
In the meantime, the government has grumbled about the burden placed upon it
by anti-piracy <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8599347.stm
> efforts. It has
also been content, in the words of a report from the Center for American
Progress, to profit "from humanitarian traffic through its port and its
status as an international development hub". Indeed, the same report argues,
Nairobi has experienced an "economic boom as a result of Somali diaspora
Such measures have done little to check the insecurity in border areas,
however. Some local commentators were therefore relieved by the invasion and
bullish in their forecasts. "Al Shabaab is used to pinching the bottom of a
goat and now that they pinched that of the lion, that is more fiercer and
more prepared, it should be in for trouble", Mathew Buyu of the United
States International University in Nairobi
The Standard newspaper. For its part Kenya's navy set its army counterparts
a poor example when its efforts to rescue Marie Dedieu
cer-recovered> resulted in the deaths of two officers after their boat
The security response
The Kenyan security forces seem to be eager for the fight, but there are
many reasons to think that they are ill-suited to their mission. The armed
forces stayed out of the post-election violence of January 2008 for the most
part; at the time, responsibility for suppressing protests and subsequent
clashes was left to the police and the paramilitary General Service Unit.
The armed forces were, however (
crimes-mt-elgon> according to Human Rights Watch) "responsible for horrific
abuses, including killings, torture and rape of civilians" in a security
crackdown along the western border later in the same year (see "
> All the Men
Have Gone: War Crimes in Keny'a Mt. Elgon Conflict", Human Rights Watch, 27
The Kenyan military is not attuned to winning hearts and minds. Nor is it
used to fighting wars; its only major campaign since independence was the
campaign against Somali irredentists seeking secession from Kenya and
absorption by Somalia during the 1960s.
The task of establishing a buffer-zone in southern Somalia will be difficult
enough, even more so the apparent goal of taking and holding the city of
Kismayo that has been part of military planning over the past couple of
years. Whatever the objective, there is, as other
ter-u-s-ethiopian-failures.html> analysts note, little
> reason to think
Kenya will succeed where the battle-hardened Ethiopians failed in recent
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, whose armed forces are part of the
African Union peacekeeping
es-in-somalia-but-numbers-vary.html> effort in Somalia, is another sceptic.
In conversations with the United States assistant secretary of state,
Johnnie Carson, and other senior American diplomats in January 2010,
described the Kenyan military as a "career army" and wondered "Is Kenya used
to fighting like this?"
The US seems to agree, or at least it did in December 2009 when one diplomat
> portrayed any plan
by Kenya to occupy parts of southern Somalia "as a bad idea that would more
likely add to Somalia's instability than to help stabilise the country". The
state department has been noticeably silent since the Kenyan operation
The Kenyan problem
But Kenya's military adventure cannot usefully be considered solely in terms
of an external threat from Somalia. There is, as with all conflicts, no
single reason why the country finds itself at war. A complex mix of local
politics and economics is at play, as well the activities of al-Shabaab.
The strong presence of al-Shabaab inside Kenya reflects the region's
troubled history. Ever since the British colonial government and Kenyan
nationalist leaders rode roughshod over the demands of Kenya's Somali
population to be allowed to join with Somalia at independence in 1963, the
relationship between Kenyan-Somalis and the state has been fraught.
The opposition to Somali secession resulted in a low-intensity war in
northeastern Kenya between 1963 and 1967. The official number of insurgents
killed is 2,000, but it is likely that many more died during the war.
Thousands more were forced from their homes during a campaign of compulsory
resettlement. Once the war was over, promised development funds never
materialised. Without any stabilising effect from Nairobi in the form of a
legitimate state presence, northeastern Kenya remained
> prone to
tremors emanating from across the border.
As Somalia spun into crisis in the 1980s, so
incursions by armed gangs became more common. But efforts by the Kenyan
government to restore a semblance of order made little effort to
discriminate between those from Somalia itself and those from the local
Somali population of the North Eastern Province. Restrictions were placed on
movement on Kenyan-Somalis and the community was subject to numerous
incidents of gross human-rights abuses. None was as significant nor
remembered with as much bitterness by Kenyan-Somalis as the Wagalla
massacre in February 1984 when at least 1,000 civilians were killed by the
Kenyan security forces.
The continued failure of successive governments to extend the full benefits
of citizenship to Kenya-Somalis has, unsurprisingly, meant that al-Shabaab
has built up networks of support within Kenya itself (see the
> report of 18
July 2011). "We are not part of Somalia, and the Kenyan government treats us
as second-class citizens", mayor Mohammed Gabow from Garissa town
told al-Jazeera in 2009. "It's a dilemma".
Such a sense of grievance has been reinforced on a regular basis. A security
crackdown targeted at Somalis living inside the Kenyan border in October
2008, for instance, was described by Human Rights Watch as "a deliberate and
brutal attack on the local civilian population".
The recent military action has been followed quickly by promises of tough
action against Kenyan-Somalis. On 19 October 2011, a junior minister
responsible for internal security, Orwa Ojodeh,
promised parliament "a massive operation to get rid of Al Shabaab and Al
Qaeda here in Nairobi." Al Shabaab is, Ojodeh claimed, "a big animal with
its main network in Kenya and only a fraction of it extending into Somalia."
Kenyan-Somalis now face tighter movement restrictions, which MPs
representing them claim are both unconstitutional and unrelated to the
conflict in Somalia.
It is true that some Kenyan-Somalis and migrants from Somalia are working
actively in support of al-Shabaab in Nairobi. They play a vital role in the
organisation through raising and transferring funds for the insurgency,
handling contraband, recruiting new fighters and providing medical treatment
to the injured. Moreover, support for al-Shabaab has recently grown amongst
the wider Muslim community in Kenya. Strong efforts were made by the
opposition in the 2007 election campaign to court the support of Muslim
voters dismayed by the Kenyan participation in
> renditions and
> purges linked to
the global "war on terror".
But Islamophobia plays well with certain sections of an increasingly
evangelised Christian Kenyan middle class (see "
0%9Cin-name-of-god-no%E2%80%9D> Kenya's referendum: 'in the name of God,
no!'", 17 August 2010) . Several incidents - the terror
> attacks of 2002 in
Mombasa, the <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/147065.stm
of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and (more distantly) the Norfolk Hotel
spect-in-fatal-hotel-bombing.html> bomb on new-year's eve 1980 - are cited
as evidence of a Muslim propensity for violence. A government that holds an
annual national prayer breakfast can expect a war against self-proclaimed
jihadists to play well with some voters, at least until the casualties begin
Al-Shabaab can operate inside Kenya only because of much wider problems that
have (according to the International Peace Institute) also allowed organised
crime to gain a foothold in Kenya. These include porous borders, impunity,
corruption and the complicity of leading political figures have created a
conducive environment for the groups's activities. It is relatively easy to
move illicit funds in and out of the country and use it as the base for the
movement of illegal goods, be it cocaine or smuggled charcoal from Somalia.
If the Kenyan government is serious about checking al-Shabaab's operations,
there are other ways of achieving this goal than invading southern Somalia.
But if <http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/InsidePage.php?id=2000038052&cid=4
accusations by the US government are true, implementing measures that would
also restrict international organised crime will be politically indelicate.
In this light, al-Shabaab can be understood as a Kenyan problem as well as a
Somali one, and insecurity within Kenya's borders can be said to be a
product of the shortcomings of the Kenyan state as well as the
> instability in its
stateless neighbour. With the state's footprint of effective rule far
smaller than the boundaries drawn on a map, insecurity has been endemic in
Kenya's periphery for decades. This no-man's-land makes up vast swathes of
territory thousands of kilometres long and hundreds deep. The state's
presence is often invisible, policing inadequate, firearms readily available
and the resident populations engaged in fierce competition for grazing and
At times of crisis, such as political upheaval or drought, that equation
often produces bloodshed. Even as troops massed on the Somali border over
the weekend of 14-16 October, for instance,
+torn+area+/-/1056/1257222/-/mf6o9gz/-/index.html> clashes between Borana
and Somali communities some 500 kilometres inside the border took the lives
of ten people.
It is hard, furthermore, to argue that al-Shabaab presents any greater risk
to the residents of northern Kenya than Ethiopian cattle-raiders. In just
one incident in early May 2011, up to sixty-nine Kenyan citizens were killed
> along that border after
they crossed just inside Ethiopia to buy food at a market.
The development lens
So why do tourists and aid workers abducted or killed by al-Shabaab seem to
matter more to the government in Nairobi than the many more of its citizens
killed along the border with Ethiopia? In addition to the ideas discussed
above, the answer might lie in developments in and around the Lamu
archipelago over the past few years.
Lamu is a designated "world heritage site" and was long a sleepy backwater -
a stopping-off point on the hippy trail, and a destination for other
adventurous travellers attracted by its beguiling mix of tropical paradise
and rich Muslim culture. Now host to numerous high-end hotels, Lamu and
nearby resorts account for nearly a
+warnings+setback+/-/539550/1247350/-/pu9eqz/-/index.html> quarter of all
tourists who head to Kenya's Indian Ocean beaches. Tourism is a vital part
of the economy, <http://www.economist.com/node/21531518
> bringing in $800
million a year at a time when the shilling is
plummeting in value. Tourists are, as expected, cancelling their holidays in
line with travel
+warnings+setback+/-/539550/1247350/-/pu9eqz/-/index.html> advice from the
British and French governments.
Tourism matters to this story only insofar as the development of Lamu has
meant Kenya's major economic interests have encroached on the internal,
unofficial buffer-zone that once protected the key centres of economic
activity in southern, highland parts of the country from the more unstable
periphery. Lamu has become an important part of ambitious development
> plans funded by China
that involve the wider northeast African region.
The area has been earmarked as a hub for transport links, a new
> port, an oil pipeline
stretching from South Sudan, and a refinery. Whereas once the Kenyan
government could afford to turn a blind eye to events on the archipelago and
its hinterland, the area now matters. And not just to Kenya; landlocked
Ethiopia and South Sudan
s-to-finance-lamu-port-plan&id_news=947&id_article=119> see such ties to
Kenya as a way of escaping from their own difficult relationships with
Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.
Both investors and likely customers have viewed recent events with
-tourism-investment-state-says.html> trepidation. The threat of piracy
unnerves shipping companies and political instability concerns other
investors. The Kenyan government has sought to reassure those who will
ultimately pay for the projects. The archipelago is, President Mwai Kibaki
> said in July 2011, "the
next frontier of development in our country and region". In part because of
that, Lamu now finds itself on the frontline of a war.
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Received on Mon Oct 24 2011 - 16:55:24 EDT