With the Somali war, Kenya finally becomes a true Great Lakes nation

Wednesday October 19 2011

When at the weekend the Kenya Army moved into Somalia in a campaign against the militant group al Shabaab, which is believed to have kidnapped aid workers from the Dadaab refugee camp, it changed the political story of the Great Lakes region.

Until the Somalia action, Kenya was the only country in the wider Great Lakes region that had never invaded or been invaded by another.

The Great Lakes is a tough neighbourhood, and because Kenya had also never had a successful military coup, it bucked the trend.

The Kenyan example suggested that it was possible to live in this part of the world without having a military coup; without having to fight your neighbour or to fend him off; and to confine your army to peace-keeping in foreign lands, and occasionally fighting heavily armed cattle-rustlers and trouble-makers at home.

No other Great Lakes nation shares that story. In early 1978, Uganda’s military dictator Idi Amin attacked Tanzania, and briefly occupied and trashed the Kagera Salient. Later in the year, the Tanzanians struck back.

In April 1979, together with a band of Uganda exile forces, it took Kampala and toppled Amin.


The gold medal for the most action in foreign territory goes to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. It has fought in the Democratic Republic of Congo and occupied its eastern part; it has seen action in the Central African Republic; it occupied parts of South Sudan; and gave a shoulder to the Rwanda Patriotic Army in its war.

The Rwanda army has been in, out, and around DR Congo many times. But lest it is forgotten, part of that started in late 1996 when the DRC army (the country was called Zaire then) in the time of the thieving dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, crossed into Rwanda, shot up a few people, and looted.

The Burundi army too, has been active in DRC. Sudan made one or two incursions into northern Uganda at the height of the war in South Sudan, and backed the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army in their futile campaign to topple the Kampala regime.

Mostly though, it frequently sent its planes to bomb northern Uganda.

Ethiopia, of course, invaded Somalia in 2006. And, depending on where you sit, has attacked Eritrea, or Eritrea has attacked it.

In any event, between 1998 and 2000, the two countries fought a deadly border war. I happened to be in Ethiopia when Addis Ababa finally overran the Eritreans in the disputed Badme border area and moved far enough inside to lob bombs at Asmara. As bloody wars in this region come and go, that was one for the ages.

With its Somalia campaign, Kenya can be said to have finally become a true East African or Great Lakes nation. It is no longer a war virgin.

This will have implications for how conflict is resolved in this region. Because Kenya generally kept its army at home and didn’t get involved militarily in regional conflicts, it was the natural venue for peace negotiations.

The Ugandans negotiated peace in Nairobi in 1985. The Transitional Federal Government of Somalia was born out of long negotiations in Nairobi.

The end of the war in South Sudan (and the eventual formal independence of that part of old Sudan this year), was also negotiated in Nairobi and Naivasha.

If the carrot, as a means of dealing with conflicts is falling out of fashion in the Great Lakes, and Nairobi is moving away from being the region’s neutral capital, what next?

Well, perhaps we shall see more of the (former Tanzania President Julius) Nyerere’s approach. As the Tanzanians moved towards Kampala in early 1979, back in Moshi where Uganda exile groups were meeting to divide the spoils and form a government, there was in-fighting, bickering, and no agreement.

Nyerere was desperate to have a Uganda government to instal in Kampala when his forces overthrew Amin. So he all but had the Ugandan exile groups locked inside the meeting venue in Moshi, and had the keys thrown away until the dissidents agreed on a government. It worked.

Going forward, it seems no country in the Great Lakes can expect to be taken seriously if it does not walk around with a big stick — and use it occasionally.

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