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Kenya’s Invasion of Somalia:
Perils and Pitfalls

By S. Abdi Sheikh
October 26, 2011

After so many years of threatening to invade Somalia, Kenya is finally on Somali soil. The stated goal for that incursion into one of the most violent, desolate and hopeless places on earth is to topple Al Shabaab and remove their menacing threat from the Kenya border. The subtle goal is to impose a friendly regime in Azania, the clan enclave created most recently in Southern Somalia close to the Kenyan border. That is the crux of the matter.

The Kenya government is always slow in making decisions and hardly follows up any line of action for far too long. Most of the grand programmes it initiates usually fall apart within a short period. It lacks the tenacity to sustain an action especially if it requires careful calculation and painful sacrifice. Many of the government initiated programmes are scuttled by profiteers. This applies to the Kenya government policy towards Somalia. The government of Kenya and IGAD were involved in training a group of Somali youth for the Somali TFG to invade and dislocate Al Shabaab insurgents from Southern Somalia. Thousands of young recruits were taken to Manyani and Isiolo for training. They were trained for six months and supplied with armour and vehicles and sent to fight in the frontlines. They made initial successes against the rebel group chasing them out of Elwak, Dhobley and Bulla Hawo on initial contact with a tactical backing from the Kenya Military. But this is where the nightmare begins.

According to sources on the ground the plan backfired at initial stages. On recruitment, most of the young men recruited were not Somali nationals. They were unemployed Kenyan youth of Somali and Boran extraction. Those of Somali origin are predominantly from one clan. Their knowledge of the language, terrain and war culture of Somalia is limited. The biggest blunder was not the fact they were Kenyan Somalis, because all Somalis qualify for Somalia citizenship regardless of where they were born and current nationality. The problem was no proper verification of age and ability was done; a percentage of the eventual militia is child soldiers barely 13 year olds.

The story gets murkier. On deployment, they were handed over to a “general” from the Somalia National Army. They were promised $ 200 a month as salaries and allowances and other provisions to survive on. Few months into battle, the young soldiers were for all intent and purposes abandoned in the frontline without enough provisions and without pay. The demoralized youth faced a rejuvenated but desperate Al Shabaab fighters whose sole goal these days is to procure supplies of food, arms and vehicles through use of force. The battle was at two fronts; Dhobley and Elwak. On both contacts both sides suffered casualties but the battle hardened Al Shabaab forced the young recruits to abandon the towns. Whispers among Kenyan Somalis estimate that over 500 of those young Kenyan men are unaccounted for. Many abandoned the battlefield sold their uniforms and guns to the pastoralists and fled to Ethiopia. Some came back home in questionable mental state. At least two military vehicles were stolen and sold to A lShabaab. Al Shabaab cleaned out the provisions; arms, vehicles and food from the military camps and fled Dhobley and Elwak when Kenyan planes started bombing them.

The injured soldiers were taken to a clinic at Elwak where there are absolutely no medicine and nothing else. Their suffering was highlighted by NTV in “Operaton X-Somalia”. This is a remarkable and costly programmes that has failed because of lack of proper care and sabotage through profiteering. The funds to supply the youth once they have been trained and put to battle must have been misappropriated by those entrusted to oversee procurement. The initial recruitment was bungled. They should have done a proper recruitment of the many unemployed refugees living in Kenya.

By October 2011, it dawned on Kenya that the Al Shabaab insurgents were not intimidated by the thousands of young soldiers stationed on the border. To add insult to injury, 2 women tourists were kidnapped at the Coast and two Spanish aid workers were also taken by men believed to be Al Shabaab at Hagardera Refugee Camp. Sources say that pirates who operate in the Indian Ocean have contracted elements of Al Shabaab and other militia groups in Somalia to kidnap foreigners, mainly Europeans, and deliver to them at designated places. Al Shabaab has been using fiery rhetoric to tout Kenya into joining the war in Somalia. They have threatened on several occasions to carry out bombings in Nairobi. In the latest bombings in Mogadishu at least one Kenyan student died. Kenya therefore had the Justification to fight them but blind rage is never a good strategy.

Kenya has according to the latest Census, although strongly contested, 2.3 Million Somali citizens. According to the Somali Constitution all Somalis are entitled to citizenship of Somali Republic. The Kenyan constitution allows for dual citizenship. There are almost a million Somali nationals living in Kenya as refugees. The Kenya border with Somalia is over 700 Kilometres. In this period of drought nearly all Kenyan pastoralists have shifted to Somalia with their livestock and are directly under in the line of fire. All this three facts have an impact on the outcome of Kenya’s foray into Somalia.

The best case scenario is a lightening operation that moves fast to capture the whole of Southern Somalia giving the insurgents little time to prepare and counterattack. This may not be possible because of the sheer size of Southern Somalia, the desolateness of the terrain and the fact that the insurgents are entrenched. The operations overall goal may not even include completely dislodging A lShabaab. The goal is quite modest according to insiders; to create Azania as a buffer zone so that the militants cannot cross to Kenya to mess up Kenya’s delicate tourism and aid industry. Azania was created in March 2011 by some elites from the tribes that live in the region with the support of IGAD and AU in the hope of squeezing Al Shabaab out of Kenya’s neighbourhood. Currently Kenya supports the Azania State and its President Mohamed Ahmed Gandi while Ethiopia opposes its creation through Ahmed Madoobe, one of the warlords with the TFG.

The worst case scenario which is likely is to get embroiled in Somalia’s confused conflict for years and disenfranchise both Kenyan Somalis and Somali refugees living in Kenya. This is likely because Kenya Government forces are not known for duty of care when in battle. They are likely to injure, kill or plunder the wealth of a Somali civilian not related to Al Shabaab and there lies the danger; danger that Americans found themselves in Somalia and Afghanistan. Tribal societies are easy to recruit into a cause if one of them is harmed. They are out for revenge on the slightest provocation. Currently Al Shabaab is facing a low period; surrounded by hostile armies, funding and arms shortage due to the Arab spring, facing the world economic crisis like everybody else and demoralized and fragmented fighters. A way out of this mess is to instigate a major power into its war. Ethiopia was there and seen how Somali friends of yesterday become vicious opponents the next day. Kenya now seems to have fallen for the ploy. Any major mistake will bring the conflict into Kenya and may open up new fronts within the large region occupied by Kenyan Somalis. It may also stir xenophobia against Somalis living in Kenya both in the security forces and the public. The government has already deployed police in Somali enclave of Eastleigh in Nairobi without a clear mandate. The police usually harass residents without regard to their status as citizens or legal refugees under International Law. The government is also hinting at screening the Somalis for ties to AlShabaab. Somalis are aware of what screening means and are also aware that the man in-charge at the Ministry of Defence, Yusuf Haji, was leading the screening process in 1989. A sense of de javu is already in the air; in 1989 nearly 25% of all Kenyan Somalis were deported to Somalia or Ethiopia. This kind of feeling is a boon for AlShabaab recruitment and support.

Kenya has taken an action that is irreversible. It has sparked a war with a shadowy group that has no clear frontline. This means those responsible for military action must think carefully not to create new enemies or inflame the conflict further. It is too early to determine possible success of this military invasion of Somalia. There has been no foreign military invaion that has ever been successful in Somalia. Many are hoping for an outcome like that of Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda which toppled Idi Amin and restored normalcy to the country.

S. Abdi Sheikh
Email:xudayi@gmail.com

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S. Abdi Sheikh the author of "Blood on the Runway: The Wagalla Massacre of 1984" is a freelance writer specializing in history, culture and politics of the Somali people.

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