What Kenya’s foray into Somalia tells us about power, war and peace

Wednesday November 30 2011

Question: Why is the Kenya army (KDF) in Somalia?

Answer: To fight Al-Shabaab terrorist group.

Question: What crime has Al-Shabaab committed?

Answer: First, they are suspected of having kidnapped European aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp in northeast Kenya. They abducted a disabled French woman from her house on Lamu beach. She died in their hands inside Somalia.

Earlier, suspected Al-Shabaab gunmen attacked a British couple and killed the man at the exclusive Kiwayu resort. Kenya took the war to Al-Shabaab to protect itself and its economy.

All that might be true, but they are what you would call “retail” reasons why the KDF went into Somalia. It is the “wholesale” reasons that interest us today.


There are many structural reasons why Kenya is battling inside Somalia, but the most important, probably, has to do with the passing of the new Constitution in 2010.

By most accounts, the new Constitution is one of the most progressive in the world, because it accommodated many competing interests.

There is still public discontent over things like corruption, but one of the most striking shifts in Kenya, to me as an outsider, is that, compared to just three or so years ago, there is a near-total acceptance of what the Kenya Project is.

You don’t find the question of what the national project is that you do in countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Zimbabwe, or even South Africa.

The extent to which Kenyans accept and rally behind the political system established by the new Constitution is nearly as high as they rally behind their world-beating athletes.

That level of consensus means that unless things go terribly wrong, it will be a long time before the public mood swings against the Somalia campaign.

This brings us to a very uncomfortable conclusion: An African country is more likely to go to war when it is united and at peace with itself than when it is uneasy.

It is true that war can help unite a troubled country. For example, when the recent history of Ethiopia is written more calmly in the future, it will probably be told that the turning point for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi came when he seemed to be in the worst political trouble – in 1998 when the war with Eritrea broke out.

Ethiopians are diehard nationalists, and so when that war broke out, many of Meles’s enemies decided that Eritrea was worse than him, and backed Ethiopia.

However, successful cases where a country goes to war due to the political class uniting the people behind it are fewer than the popular imagination has it.

In fact, Uganda proves this well. There was a time when Museveni and his government were being referred to as regional imperialists. He was seen as the hand behind the invasion of Rwanda by the Rwanda Patriotic Front.

The Uganda army was deep inside south Sudan, fighting with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army against Khartoum.

And, of course, there was the war against then Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

The imperial stage of Museveni’s power was also the period when his popularity both at home and internationally was sky-high, and you couldn’t touch him. His wisdom was unquestioned, and the affection that the country had for the army ensured it was fairly successful.

Museveni ceased to be an ambitious expansionist when his popularity at home and abroad begun to plummet. He all but abandoned “imperial” politics and became a peacekeeper.

That, again, is probably why, in the 1980s and 1990s, Kenya was a world leader in the UN peacekeeping business. It was the period of agitation for multiparty politics at home, and the Moi regime was deeply unpopular.

You could say that Moi did not go to war because he did not lead a country united enough to make war. So he did peacekeeping. Kibaki, on the other hand, hasn’t done peacekeeping. He has a more united country, so he has fought Kenya’s first foreign war.

This is not surprising. A peaceful country is able to create prosperity and pay for war. Secondly, if people believe in their country, they are more willing to die for it.

We human beings are strange creatures.

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