I have witnessed and covered my fair share of wars. Among the things I have learnt is that the way a people make war — and peace — often tells you a lot about their national character and history.
Now that Kenya has taken war to the provocative Al-Shabaab militia in Somalia, it is fascinating seeing how it is prosecuting the campaign.
Every day in the first few days, military spokesman Emmanuel Chirchir held media briefings about the progress of the war.
Also, we see daily photos of soldiers in armoured cars, Humvees, and military planes refuelling. That is routine stuff in war, you would think.
Until you compare it to the case of Uganda and Rwanda. In early 1999, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces and Rwanda Patriotic Army (now Rwanda Defence Forces) invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo, where barely two years earlier, they had helped to overthrow the despicable dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and instal Laurent Kabila as president.
I was then the editor of the main independent paper in Uganda, The Monitor. The media didn’t know Uganda had invaded DRC, and no one expected that it would.
One day at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am, my cellphone rang. One the other end was (now) Gen Salim Saleh (actual names Caleb Akandwanaho), a guerrilla war hero and of President Museveni’s brother. He was, then, the second most powerful figure in the country.
“We invaded Congo, and today we captured Kisangani”, he said. “You can come and open a newspaper here if you wish”.
I was stunned, and all sleep was gone. He then filled me in on what happened. He said he would keep updating me, and when the time was “ripe”, we could go with the story.
He established access for me, and I got regular updates – but couldn’t publish, because I had given my word.
There was speculation in the local and international press, and the issue was becoming a diplomatic nightmare for Uganda.
But, though I knew for sure that we had troops in DRC and had several details of how the war was going, we could only report speculatively and NOT confirm, because Gen Saleh had effectively silenced us by offering us a front seat.
We eventually had a scoop, but it was no longer as hot as if we had published it as soon as I got it.
The media strategy of the Uganda military, unlike Kenya’s, is to offer access to war for one or two journalists at a time. That sets off competition among the media for the affection of the army. Which means, if you are too negative, you will never get to the frontline. The result is that coverage tends to be favourable.
The advantage, though, is that the army has to make access worth competing for. So, the UPDF would grant access to the hard frontline.
So the lucky journalist would occasionally get a first-hand view of the fighting, the bodies, and the mayhem. This is a practice partly informed by the UPDF’s roots as a guerrilla army.
Kenya’s regular army is very structured — daily briefings and all that — but the media will be lucky to be shown firsthand frontline action.
However, the biggest difference is in how the Kenya army is transported. The Ugandan and Rwandan armies walk. The distance between Kigali and Kinshasa, is 1,659 kilometres.
The distance between Nairobi and the Somali port town of Kismayu, which the Kenya forces are targeting, is 644 kilometres.
The Rwanda army walked nearly all that distance from the end of 1996 to September 1997 to help overthrow Mobutu. When the UPDF withdrew, the troops walked nearly 540 kilometres from Kisangani to the Uganda border.
The Uganda-Rwanda mode is a cost-effective model developed from guerrilla war. It also ensures that you sweep and leave no “enemy” cells behind you, and that you master the land and people better. But it has higher civilian contact, hence more casualties, and the risk of human rights violations.
The Kenya model is expensive, but avoids the social and political problems of the guerrilla approach. But if you want to occupy and hold territory, you have to go the Uganda-Rwanda way. Which suggests that Kenya’s goal is to conquer, quickly hand over to a proxy, and get out.