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Kenya must decide whether to stop al-Shabaab or let them be

Saturday June 27 2009


I have been getting quite amused by a line of local argument that Kenya does not have what it takes to invade Somalia. There is a lot of idle chatter in this country on everything, which I find best to ignore.

But with al-Shabaab making daily mincemeat of Somalia’s pathetic Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and causing massive constipation to the Kenyan authorities in the process, it is time to put a few facts straight.

Fact 1: Kenya has indisputably the most professional military in our region and is, indeed, among the best in Africa. It is superbly trained and equipped, by sub-Saharan Africa standards of course. Doubting this by pointing at Migingo is neither here nor there. You don’t use a hammer to swat a fly, as lawyer P.L.O. Lumumba likes to say.

We also forget Kenya is the sole country in East Africa with a functional air force. Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and even the Democratic Republic of Congo only read about jet fighters in foreign military manuals like Jane’s Defence Weekly.

Ethiopia used to rival us in this sphere, but the MiGs it inherited from the Soviet Union are barely serviceable these days. They make do with helicopter gunships, which they used with devastating effect when they intervened in Somalia in 2006.

Fact 2: The Defence Staff College in Karen, Nairobi, does not just train Kenya’s top military brass. It also trains those of the neighbouring states, and many others in Africa besides.


Fact 3: The al-Shabaab are not an army. They are a militia, rough and unruly. To imagine they are a match to Kenya’s armoured military is wishful thinking. If Kenyan soldiers simply wanted to march to Mogadishu, nothing would stop them.

My caveats, however, begin here. An invasion becomes unfeasible if the intention is for a prolonged stay. Ethiopia’s two-year experience in Somalia was not a nice one. Despite its overwhelming military power, it could not pacify the place.

Al-Shabaab may be a rag-tag outfit, but it can completely tie down an occupying power. Remember Gulliver and the Lilliputians? Mighty USA is facing the same headaches in Afghanistan.

That is not to say Kenya is powerless. It has potent trump cards. It can use its soldiers and air power to totally disorganise al-Shabaab and scatter its ambition to occupy the whole of Somalia. A bit like Ethiopia did before.

Kenya can do better and provide capacity for the TFG’s feeble security apparatus. Supplying weaponry is not enough. his country has an extensive supportive infrastructure – airfields, medical facilities, high-tech communications and the like – it can readily put at the disposal of an intervention force were the international community to decide on this course of action.

There is something else Kenya can use – its clout as the financial hub which every Somali wannabe eventually turns to. It is an open secret that not just the TFG bigshots but the sheikhs who control al-Shabaab rely a great deal on the hard currency transfer outlets Nairobi provides, whether through local or foreign benefactors. Close those money taps, and some backers of al-Shabaab will suffocate.

Kenya will have to make up its mind whether to stop al-Shabaab or to let them be because of the bar-room fear of terrorist reprisals. A lot is being made of al-Shabaab’s boast that it will resort to suicide attacks to destroy “the tall, glass buildings in Nairobi”. (Do you get a sense of humour from the otherwise humourless insurgents when they rant about “glass houses” in our country?)

Anyway, Ethiopia has a far bigger population within of ethnic Somalis than even Kenya. It has not been brought to a standstill because of its destruction of the Islamic Courts Union during its two-year occupation of Somalia. As they say, if you can’t stand the heat, step out of the kitchen. Isn’t Kenya already in that kitchen?


I have a question specifically for two people: President Kibaki and Attorney-General Amos Wako. I raise this as they grapple to get going a local tribunal to try the perpetrators of the post-election killings.

Assuming Parliament again rejects setting up the tribunal, and even assuming Kofi Annan does not follow through with The Hague, does it mean our existing laws won’t do? Does it mean the Laws of Kenya became inoperative the moment Mr Annan came here? Why haven’t any of the masterminds been arrested and charged?