How Kenya can win the war against Al-Shabaab without really fighting

Wednesday December 14 2011

Today, the Kenya military campaign in Somalia will have been going on for exactly two months.

Perhaps, appropriately, a cheeky friend wrote me to reflect on Kenya’s exploits there: The “Linda Nchi’’ strategy couldn’t be more Kenyan”, he wrote; “Go in when it’s wet so you can blame the weather if anything goes wrong; embed a few journalists but keep the details secret — helps the media stay on-side; bomb a few positions — the noise reminds everyone you exist; then turn a few enemy commanders to ‘mop-up’ the remaining Al-Shabaab.

‘‘Finally, ‘re-hat’ (the Kenya Defence Forces into an Amisom/UN peace-enforcement force) and get the UN to double your salary. At this rate, Kismayu will be taken without a shot, and with a new car in the garage”.

Even if what is happening in Somalia is quite serious business, one cannot help but chuckle at that.

Just how serious and how international Al-Shabaab has become is reflected in a very revealing interview published in the Somalia Report on Monday.

It was of Al-Shabaab’s Intelligence Officer (


He is asked: “How many (Al-Shabaab fighters) are foreigners?”

Answer: “Mujahadin brothers? They are many. They come from Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Libya, the US and Zanzibar. Allah be praised. Mostly, they are well-educated. Some of them brought their computers and are very happy to stay with us, but we see them very rarely. Last Monday I saw four mujahadin in Afgoye. They cross all al-Shabaab areas.”

Al-Shabaab, then is just not a bunch of local militants. It is a talented multinational force.

It is one of the reasons the outcome for Kenya will have far-reaching consequences. There are four competing narratives about Kenya.

First, there is the Kenya that is seen as a “peaceful nation” that does not fight wars — either against itself or other countries — unlike its partners in the East African Community like Rwanda or Uganda. The murderous post-election violence of 2008 ended that story of a peaceful nation.

Then there is the story of Kenya as a weak nation. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, according to leaked US diplomatic cables published on WikiLeaks, reportedly expressed that dim view of Kenya’s military.

The same notion seems to have informed Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir’s reported “two week ultimatum” to Kenya to reverse a High Court order enforcing an ICC arrest warrant against him should he set foot on Kenya.

It is inconceivable that Bashir would make that request of Museveni or Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. In fact, even if all the world’s leaders combined and gave such an ultimatum to stubborn African presidents like Kagame, Meles, or Museveni, they would still scoff at them all.

The third narrative about Kenya, common among old school leftists and pan-Africanists, is that of a “quisling” nation, that collaborated with “imperialist” forces and romanced with the racist apartheid regime.

Yet, after victory is won in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, Kenyan companies like Kenya Airways rush in to mooch off the blood and sacrifices of African revolutionaries.

Finally, among the hardline security types in East Africa, there has been a tendency to see Kenya as a “freeloader” state.

That it is happy to market itself as the leading economy in the region, and its companies have benefited from the relative stability in the region of the last 10 years, but unlike other countries (US, China, Nigeria) that are leading economic powers in their regions, it has been unwilling to contribute to ensuring regional security.

The Somalia campaign, therefore offers Kenya a great opportunity for a major ritual cleansing before the African progressive constituency.

With Somalia, as the Americans would put it, Nairobi is “leaving some skin in the game”. Now it can eat of the wealth of the region rightfully.

For this reason, it is not even necessary to win in Somalia. In fact a loss would be better, because Nairobi could then claim a higher moral ground by arguing that it made a greater sacrifice by going into a fight in which victory was not certain.

[email protected] & [email protected]