Kenya’s intervention in Somalia in 2011 was the inauguration a militaristic robust foreign policy, and it came with obvious costs. The intervention was the final chapter of President Kibaki’s foreign policy record and the rationale, goal, mission, and exit plan were never clearly articulated. In fact, it is a measure of how poorly the whole operation was planned, that Kenyans were informed that the government had sent troops into Somalia, not by the president, not by the minister for defense, but by the minister for internal affairs, on a weekend.
The Al Shabaab bogeymen doctrine means, you can say anything and everything about Al Shabaab to whip public opinion on your side, and get the West’s unstinting support. The initial stated goal of the intervention was the pursuit of Al Shabaab, who allegedly kidnapped aid workers in Northern Kenya, and foreign tourists along the coast. This was a plausible reason for going into Somalia, on the face of it.
But the intervention has degenerated into a charade resembling an occupation rather than the liberation of Southern Somalia from the yolk of Al Shabaab. It has done little to secure Kenya from Al Shabaab’s attacks- the attacks, in fact, escalated after Kenya went into Somalia, revealing Kenya’s (in) security underbelly; its inability to sufficiently police its borders.
Since the intervention, the blowback has been evident – there is a deteriorating security situation along the border with Somalia, and in Nairobi there have been a series of grenade attacks. Whilst some of these have been the work of opportunistic criminal and business groups, others like the attack on the church in Garissa, bear the hallmark of Al Shabaab (and have been claimed as such through their twitter handle.)
Additionally, the events in the port city of Kismayo revealed that all along Kenya wasn’t interested in containing Al Shabaab, but was interested in establishing in sphere of influence via the formation of Jubaland- a satellite state, remote controlled from Nairobi. This move is counterproductive for several reasons: Ethiopia will not continence such a move because the region is largely occupied by the Ogadens, who are waging a rebellion in southern Ethiopia. This will be akin to providing them a rear from where they can launch attacks against Ethiopia. The establishment of Jubaland will also weaken Mogadishu, currently trying to delicately balance several overlapping and competing interests. The emergence of another center of power with allegiance to Nairobi will hugely undermine the long-term stability of the country.
The winner from this standoff is Al Shabaab, who at least, rhetorically, projects a pan Somalia image that subordinates divisive clan interests. More significantly, the tug of war between Nairobi and Mogadishu, which has been exemplified by the murmurs and planned demonstrations against Kenya’s Defense Forces (KDF), and the recent report of illegal charcoal sold by the KDF, increases resentment towards Kenya.
Further, acute internal contradictions within the group are of greater existential danger than any external interventions – the pan-Somali nationalism espoused by Aweys and the transnational jihadist wing of Godane (nom de guerre of ‘Abu Zubeir’) was difficult to reconcile. The recent departure of Sheikh Aweys (regarded as the father of the jihadi movement in Somalia), the alleged killing of Ibrahim al-Afghani and the fleeing of the group’s spokesman Mukhtar Robbow, reveals a serious power struggle within the group. But what is going on in Kismayo gives the group a second chance, similar to the 2006 Ethiopian invasion. The last chapter of this struggle was last week’s killing of Alabama-born al-Shabaab commander Omar Hammami, known as Abu Mansoor al-Amriki or “the American”. With this Godane, Afghanistan-trained, has completely taken over Al Shabaab and the transnational Jihadi is the next phase of the group’s operation. The attack oo the West Gate shopping mall- the symbol of Kenya’s economic rise and security was a retaliation for the group losing their economic lifeline-the port of Kismayo, their message is; you took over Kisamyo, we shall hit you where it hurts most.
Overall, however, there is a need for recalibrating Kenya’s Somalia policy; staying the course exclusively will hardly inoculate Kenya from future attacks, but a long term policy that combines political efforts- supporting the present Somalia government, combined with a more enhanced border patrol, tracking the money sources and transfers, immigration reform and fundamental security sector reform, will be more fruitful than relying purely on a military solution. Further, a measured response anchored in law will go a long way in discrediting Al Shabaab as opposed to a robust military response.
Presently, there is an understandable palpable sense of anger towards Somalis and Somali alike in particular, and Muslims in general that precedes these attacks, and, this will heighten it especially from the security forces. But ethnically profiling Somalis could make human intel regarding Somalia incredibly difficult, and strained relations between Kenyans and Somalis will not auger well for stability. The Somali/Muslim leadership and the national and local leadership need to have interdenominational outreach mechanisms to diffuse such tension. Muslim leaders also need to come out and take a stand about this incredibly dangerous situation because Al Shabaab’s recruitment has transcended the traditional Muslim- Northern Kenya and Coastal communities, into other communities.