Kenya: Five Things About Al-Shabaab and the Somalia Question

Early Thursday morning militants from the al-Shabaab terror group stormed Garissa University College in Kenya and killed at least 147 students. The second worst terror attack in Kenya’s history lasted 13 hours and was made excruciatingly horrific by the fact that many of the victims remained in communication with their loved ones until the very last moments. Unbearable images of young students laying dead in their own pools of blood in classrooms will forever be etched in Kenyans’ memories. The attack echoed the September 21, 2013 Westgate Mall terror attack that killed 67 people. After Westgate many Somalia analysts insisted that such daring missions were the kicks of a dying horse, and cited successes by AMISOM and AFRICOM in taking back territory from al-Shabaab and decapitating the organization through drone strikes against it leadership.

Following Garissa, it might be time to reconsider this persistent narrative and overall Somalia policy in the Eastern African region. Here are my thoughts:

Screen Shot 2015-04-03 at 9.51.35 AM1. Regional powers do not want a powerful central government in Mogadishu: Since independence several governments in Somalia have espoused a dream of re-uniting all the Somali lands and peoples in eastern Africa (under “Greater Somalia,” see map). That includes parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and more recently the breakaway regions of Somaliland and Puntland. A strong central government in Mogadishu would most certainly revive this old irredentist dream, despite the fact that the irredentist dreams of Somalia’s pre-Barre governments and the costly wars with Ethiopia (and proxy wars with Kenya as well thereafter) were the beginning of the end of stability in Somalia. Nairobi and Addis are acutely aware of this and that is part of the reason Kenya has for years maintained a policy of creating an autonomous buffer region in southern Somalia – Jubaland. The problem, however, is that a weak Mogadishu also means diffused coercive capacity and inability to fight off breakaway clans, militias, and terror groups like al-Shabaab.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Ethiopia and Kenya do not see eye to eye on the question of Jubaland. Addis Ababa is worried that a government in Jubaland dominated by the Ogaden clan could potentially empower the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), a separatist Somali insurgent group it has fought in its southeastern Ogaden Region.

2. The African Union and its regional partners do not have a coherent game plan for Somalia: To a large extent, African governments fighting under AMISOM are merely carrying water for Western governments fighting jihadist elements in Somalia. The West pays and provides material and tactical support; and the West calls the shots. Ethiopia and Kenya have some room to maneuver, but overall policy is driven by AFRICOM and the Europeans. The lack of local ownership means that African troops, especially the Kenyan and Ugandan contingents, are in the fight primarily for the money. Kenyan generals are making money selling charcoal and smuggling sugar (the UN estimates that al-Shabaab gets between US $38-56m annually from taxing the charcoal trade). The Ugandans are making money with private security contracts dished out to firms with close ties to Museveni’s brother. Only the Ethiopians appear to have a clear policy, on top of the general international goal of neutralizing al-Shabaab so that they do not attack Western targets.

What kind of settlement does Kenya (and Ethiopia) want to see in Somalia? (See above). What does the West want? What do Somalis want? Are these goals compatible in the long run?

3. The internationalization of the al-Shabaab menace is a problem: Western assistance in fighting al-Shabaab and stabilizing Somalia is obviously a good thing. But it should never have come at the cost of unnecessary internationalization of the conflict. Al-Shabaab has been able to get extra-Somalia assistance partly because it fashions itself as part of the global jihad against the kafir West and their African allies. Internationalization of the conflict has also allowed it to come up with an ideology that has enabled it to somehow overcome Somalia’s infamous clannish fractionalization (although elements of this still persist within the organization). Localizing the conflict would dent the group’s global appeal while at the same time providing opportunities for local solutions, including a non-military settlement. AMISOM and the West cannot simply bomb the group out of existence.

4. Kenya is the weakest link in the fight against al-Shabaab: Of the three key countries engaged in Somalia (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda), Kenya is the least militarized. It is also, perhaps, the least disciplined. According to the UN, Kenyan troops are engaging in illegal activities that are filling the coffers of al-Shabaab militants (charcoal worth at least $250 million was shipped out of Somalia in the last two years). Back home, Nairobi has allowed its Somalia policy to be captured by a section of Somali elites that have other agendas at variance with overall national policy. The Kenya Defense Force (KDF) risks becoming a mere pawn in the clannish struggles that straddle the Kenya-Somalia border. It is high time Nairobi reconsidered its Somalia policy with a view of decoupling it from the sectional fights in Northeastern Province. The first step should be to make the border with Somalia real by fixing customs and border patrol agencies; and by reining in sections of Somali elites who continue to engage in costly fights at the expense of ordinary wananchi. The government should adopt a strict policy of not taking sides in these fights, and strictly enforce this policy at the County level.

5. Kenya will continue to be the weakest link in the fight against al-Shabaab: Of the countries in Somalia Kenya is the only democracy with a government that is nominally accountable to its population and an armed force with a civilian leadership. This means that:

(i) Generals can run rings around State House and its securocrats: Unlike their counterparts in Uganda and Ethiopia, the Kenyan generals do not have incentives to internalize the costs of the war in Somalia. The cost is mostly borne by the civilian leadership. They are therefore likely to suggest policies that primarily benefit the institution of the military, which at times may not be in the best interest of the nation. And the civilian leadership, lacking expertise in military affairs, is likely to defer to the men in uniform. The result is makaa-sukari and other glaring failures.

(ii) Kenyan internal security policies are subject to politicization: With every al-Shabaab attack (so far more than 360 people have been killed) Kenyans have wondered why Ethiopia, which is also in Somalia and has a large Somali population, has remained relatively safe. My guess is that Ethiopia has done better in thwarting attacks because it has a coherent domestic security policy backed by unchecked coercion and surveillance of potential points of al-Shabaab entry among its Somali population.

Now, Kenya should not emulate Ethiopia’s heavy-handed tactics. Instead, focus should be on an honest assessment of how internal security policies in Mandera, Garissa, Wajir, Kwale, Kilifi, Mombasa, Nairobi, and elsewhere are playing into the hands of al-Shabaab. What is the best way to secure the “front-line” counties that border Somalia? What is the role of local leaders in ensuring that local cleavages and conflicts are not exploited by al-Shabaab? How should the security sector (Police and KDF) be reformed to align its goals with the national interest? What is the overarching goal of the KDF in Somalia and how long will it take to achieve that goal? How is the government counteracting domestic radicalization and recruitment of young Kenyan men and women by al-Shabaab?

These questions do not have easy answers. But Kenyans must try. The reflexive use of curfews and emergency laws, and the blunt collective victimization of communities suspected to be al-Shabaab sympathizers will not work.

I do not envy President Uhuru Kenyatta: Withdrawing from Somalia will not secure the homeland. Staying the course will likely not yield desired results given the rot in KDF and the internal politics of northeastern Kenya. Reforming the police and overall security apparatus comes with enormous political costs. A recent shake up of security chiefs and rumors of an impending cabinet reshuffle are signs that Kenyatta has realized the enormity of the insecurity situation in the country (and overall government ineffectiveness due to corruption). But will Kenyans be patient and give him the benefit of the doubt? Will the president be able to channel his laudable nationalist instincts in galvanizing the nation in the face of seemingly insurmountable security threats and ever more corrupt government officials?

Meanwhile 2017 is approaching fast, and if the situation doesn’t change Mr. Kenyatta might not be able to shrug off the title of “Goodluck Jonathan of the East.”

For the sake of Kenyan lives and the Jamuhuri, nakutakia kila la heri Bwana Rais.

Somalia: Police Development as State Building?

International and local power brokers see police as indicators of legitimacy and international recognition, but the international community’s vision of police development as state building is undermined by Somali politicians, officers, and businessmen sharing a political and entrepreneurial under- standing of the police role. The picture is further nuanced by influential Somalis who regard many of the structures and skills associated with Western policing as desirable, even as they manipulate the values and procedures promoted in its name.

The propensity of donors to see police development as a tool for not only state building, but also social engineering is marked. But so is the pragmatic response of Somalis. Officers in Somaliland and Puntland take what they value, manipulate what they can use, and subvert approaches that offend the sensibilities of their conservative society. Meanwhile, the SPF’s primary concern is to acquire the heavy weapons, vehicles, fuel, and communications equipment it needs to survive today.

Somalia’s experience shows that formality is not required for the governance associated with state building, but relative security and stability are, and there are limits to the role police can play in facilitating this: Somalia remains dangerously insecure. That the three forces are subject to the un- predictability that dependence on local power brokers and international funding introduces suggests that success depends on balancing local security levels and politics against international imperatives in a way that goes beyond current conceptions of state-based governance.

That is Alice Hills in a paper on policing in Somalia in the current issue of African Affairs.

Lest we forget…

There was a time when Somalia was different…

Democracy is also a deeply rooted Somali political principle which, I suspect, continues much as usual in the more remote parts of the nomadic interior. How long it will be before it reasserts itself in the central political life of the state remains to be seen.

We are still waiting.

For an account of the politics of the Siad Barre coup of 1969 check out Lewis (1972)

Africa’s most forgotten Democrat

Who was the first leader of independent Africa who lost an election and agreed to step down?

No, it was not Mathieu Kerekou of Benin.

Because my adviser [I doubt he reads this blog] spent some of his early years in academia working and publishing on Somalia, I have been reminded quite a few times that back in 1967 Somalia’s president Aden Abdulle Osman Daar was actually the first leader of independent Africa to lose an election and agree to step down [see here].

This is a fact that many Africanists and journalists have forgotten. Please give credit where it is due.

Kenya at War

UPDATE II: John Campbell over at the Council on Foreign Relations discusses the extent of US and French assistance to the Kenyan invasion of al-Shabab controlled regions of Somalia. Check it out here.

UPDATE: Reaction to the Expert Comment from Middleton at Chatham House:

Middleton makes good points about the Kenyan invasion of al-Shabab-held regions of Somalia. The Ethiopian failure in 2006 and potential for a humanitarian crisis must certainly be part of the cost-benefit analysis on the Kenyan side. Failure to establish a secure buffer zone in Southern/Western Somalia and/or to defeat the al-Shabab will definitely have serious consequences.

But the alternative is worse. Al-Shabab elements kidnapped aid workers in Dadaab, in a clear signal that they are willing to disrupt humanitarian aid not only within the areas they control but also within Kenyan. In addition, it is important to appreciate the gravity of the al-Shabab threat to Kenyan security. If al-Shabab is allowed to continue operating within Kenya it may morph into a more dangerous domestic insurgency with a ready supply of disaffected groups – Kenyans in the North East who for decades have been neglected by Nairobi and have legitimate reasons to express those grievances by organizing around such a movement.

In addition, unlike Ethiopia in 2006, Kenya is in Somalia purely for national security purposes. Ethiopia had the baggage of the Ogaden War and the Somali-backed insurgency in its own Ogaden region. Plus it was very clear at the time that the US was bankrolling the Ethiopian war effort – the ICU obviously used this to develop a narrative of western-backed “Christian Ethiopia” invading a Muslim country. Al-Shabab, at least for the moment, does not have the advantage of defining the Kenyan military operation in their own terms

[It is interesting that neither the Kenyan parliament nor presidency has officially declared war on anyone. It is the internal security and defense ministries that have been running the show].

Al-Shabab has been severely weakened around Mogadishu. The ongoing famine has also served to weaken their control of Somalis’ hearts and minds. Their remaining stronghold is the port town of Kismayu whose capture will deprive them of an important supply route and source of revenue (via Indian ocean piracy). If there was ever a good time to try and defeat the group in the battlefield (especially since they have refused to negotiate with anyone), this is it.

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On Sunday the Kenyan armed forces moved into Western/Southern Somalia. The invasion was occasioned by recent kidnappings of tourists and aid workers near the border with Somalia. Al-Shabab, the proscribed terror group in Somalia, is suspected to have been behind the kidnappings, although it denies the charge.

The invasion is a clear signal of the failure of Kenya’s previous policy of strategic containment of the “Somalia problem.”

Source: Gado, Daily Nation

As of Tuesday the Kenyan army had advanced more than 100 miles into Somali territory, although bad weather has significantly slowed the advance. The target town is Al-Shabab’s stronghold port town of Kismayo. The DoD spokesperson Emmanuel Chirchir is reported to have said that “The troops are ready for anything. If it takes us to December they are willing to celebrate Christmas there.”

The invasion comes at a difficult time for the country and will no doubt generate significant economic and political consequences.

Inflation is at over 17%. The Kenyan Shilling is struggling against the US dollar. And the rate of economic growth appears to have slowed from a projected annualized rate of 5.6%. The increase in military expenditure amid high inflation, a severely weakened Shilling and calls for fiscal austerity will surely have a negative impact on future growth prospects. For more on this check out the Business Daily.

On the political side, success in routing al-Shabab will be another feather in retiring President Kibaki’s hat.

Failure might ignite a backlash against the country’s military establishment. It will be interesting to see how the political class deals with failure, since this is the first time that Kenya has ever undertaken a military operation of this scale. My take is that the military, as an institution, will take the fall in case of failure. Because of their ethnicized nature, previous lapses in security in the borders with Ethiopia and Uganda did not create that many problems for the pols in Nairobi. That said, this time might be different because of the nature and scale of the threat.

Of interest will also be how this military operation affects civilian control of the military.

Experience in many less institutionalized countries shows that heightened militarization results in diminished civilian control of the military – with the potential for coups.

I doubt this will be the case in Kenya. However long “Operation Linda Nchi” takes the result will be closer to the Tanzanian invasion of Uganda in the late seventies than to cases where military adventurism resulted in the overthrow of an incumbent (like in Siad Barre’s Somalia). Civilian control of the military in Kenya remains stronger than in most African countries.

Beyond matters of civilian control of the military it is important to consider what the repercussions will be for ordinary Kenyans. Many fear that the al-Shabab might strike Kenya where it hurts most – in Nairobi. This is a real possibility that one hopes the Kenyan government has planned for.

Also, in the event of a protracted war or a major terrorist attack by al-Shabab within Kenya there is the possibility of a backlash against Kenyans of Somali extraction. While this might happen among the masses I doubt that any of the major political figures will actively promote such a misguided reaction. North Eastern Kenya is an important voting bloc that the presidential front-runners in next year’s general election will want on their side (Mr. Odinga, the Kenyan Prime Minister is particular keen on this voting bloc). In this regard the fact that blatant scapegoating of Somalis will have negative political consequences is a source of mild comfort.

The editorial pages of the major newspapers in Kenya have all been solidly behind the invasion. Quoting the Business Daily:

Kenya’s foreign policy has at best been mild and at worst meek.

The nation has been out of the regional combats even when incursions took place in its territory, opting for peaceful resolutions.

This has happened in the Kenya-Ethiopia border during the Oromo wars and during the Ogaden War when Kenya opted for peace parleys rather than battlefield tussles.

But this dud non-aligned policy of the 1960s, exacerbated by the extinguished Cold War, holds no place in the current political order where terrorism and banditry has replaced conventional wars.

There were few options left for Kenya. One, they cannot let the al-Shabaab militia group continue to with their raids oblivious of our military power. Secondly, the sovereignty of our nation, and our pride was undergoing severe test.

The al-Shabab extremism must come to an end.

Blackwater founder linked to Somalia

The embattled Somali transitional government is reported to be soliciting for help from a security firm that is a child of South Africa’s infamous executive outcomes and their American partner Blackwater. Executive outcomes has a checkered past, including involvement in coups and suppression of insurgencies in the more unstable parts of Africa. Blackwater came to the limelight following its casual treatment of civilian life in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The transitional federal government (TGF) of Somalia should be advised that mercenaries do not make a nation. There is nothing that will stop Saracen and their backers from turning on the same government if their incentive alignment changes. The last thing the Somalis need is the creation of a mamluk culture on top of the chaos that already exists.

My position on Somalia remains that those with power – guns and the majority of the people’s (revealed) hearts and minds – should be allowed to govern, regardless of their ideological leanings. Once they’ve tasted State House and a state visit in Vienna they can then be bought off and made part of the international community. It won’t be the first time that the international community has condoned a fundamentalist regime for the sake of short-term stability. Right now the primary need in Somalia is Hobbe’s Leviathan. Period.

The TGF was a dead on arrival delivery that continues to stifle Somalia’s chances of emerging from collapse.

 

al-shabaab may be linked to kampala blasts

UPDATE: The daily nation reports that Somalia’s insurgent group al-Shabab has claimed the bombings that killed dozens in Kampala yesterday. The Atlantic’s Max Fisher offers an interesting analysis of the bombings.

Blasts in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, killed at least 64, the BBC reports. According to the report Ugandan security forces suspect that the bomb attacks may have been carried out by Somali insurgent groups. Ugandan troops are the backbone of the 5000 strong African Union contingent propping up the hapless transitional government of Somalia. The main rebel group in Somalia, the islamist al-Shabab, has previously threatened to attack Uganda in connection with its military presence in Somalia.

These attacks may be the beginning of a new security problem in the wider east African region. Since the fall of Siad Barre in 1991 the Somali’s have largely kept their violence within their borders, the only regional effect being the proliferation of light arms and the recent surge in piracy off the Somali coast. But that will change now that internationally-linked groups like al-Shabab are willing to export violence beyond the Somali borders. It might be time for unconventional approaches to the Somalia problem.

Uganda is scheduled to host a high profile African Union summit next week and security must be an even bigger concern for the Ugandan government in light of these attacks.

jua kali will not take us where we want to go

Informal businesses provide employment for millions of Kenyans. Kiosks (both big and of the mama mboga variety), the mitumba business, matatus and even peasant agriculture are what keeps the average Kenyan going. Because of governance issues – like corruption and poor laws – the formal sector of the Kenyan economy has consistently failed to provide enough jobs for the ever growing population. That said, I believe that the jua kali (informal) sector will not take Kenya where it wants to go. Economic History teaches us that scale has merits. It provides the resources for R&D, lowers operational costs and generates revenue for the government because it is hard to hide profits from the taxman like is commonplace in Kenya’s jua kali sector. Plus if we have scale we can export surplus production to places all over the Continent thus creating even more Kenyan jobs – why should we cede these markets to the Chinese, Indians and other “Dubai” traders?

That is why I think that Jaindi Kisero has a point with regard to Kenya’s matatu-dominated transport sector. It is time Nairobi, if not all major cities and towns, had decent public transportation unlike the chaotic and thuggish matatu industry. The matatu industry has given rise to a matatu culture that has taken vulgarity and criminality to a new level – the epitome of which is the dreaded Mungiki sect. Because of this, most reasonable people would concur that “formalizing” public transportation and the matatu industry would go a long way in reducing crime and bringing some sanity to Kenyan roads. Now if only there was a place where we could purchase political will and secretly feed it to Kenyan politicians.

And in other news, Somalis in the southern part of the country will be forced to go hungry after al-Shabab kicked out the WFP. About 900,000 people will be affected by the WFP decision. 2.8 million Somalis are dependent on food relief. The WFP decided to close shop in the face of several demands from al-Shabab (the demands were not all bad, I should add. One of them was that the WFP should not import food during the harvest season in order to promote local agriculture. These al-Shabab types know something about the demerits of food aid in Africa, it seems). Somalia has not had a functional government since the fall of Siad Barre in the early 1990s. Sometimes I wonder whether instead of the US paying the Ethiopians to invade Somalia it might have been better to have the Islamic Courts Union run the country. Well, at least for some time before incentivizing their being less predatory and misogynistic. Most politicians the world over have a price. Especially once they have tasted real power.

Lastly, Somalia is not all gloomy. If you are daring enough you can make money in the land of the al-Shabab, without being involved in piracy.