Kenya and Somalia: landscape of tension

"Kenya doesn’t know war. We know war." A fractious mix of violence and politics is unsettling the relationship between east African neighbours and putting more pressure on Somalis living in Kenya. The Somali militia group known as al-Shabaab is often viewed as the source of the problem. But the roots of the turmoil go deep in Kenya's own history, says Daniel Branch.

Kenya’s troubled relationship with Somalia and its own population of ethnic Somali citizens is coming to a head. Kenyan troops crossed the border on 16 October 2011 as Operation Linda Nchi ("Protect the Nation") got underway. In response, hundreds of fighters from the Somali militia called al-Shabaab converged on the town of Afmadow in southern Somalia to meet them.

In an ominous sign of the most likely trajectory of this expedition, a suicide-attack on 19 October close to the building in Mogadishu hosting talks between Kenyan and Somali ministers killed five people. Al-Shabaab has threatened further attacks on Nairobi. "Kenya doesn’t know war. We know war", the group's spokesman told the BBC. "The tall buildings in Nairobi will be destroyed."

The attacks in Kampala in July 2010 suggest that Kenyans would do well to heed the warning. The grenade-attack on a bar in Nairobi on the night of 23-24 October hich injured thirteen people adds to its immediacy. But Kenyans would also be advised to look even closer to home to understand why it is they find their country at war.

The insecurity complex

To some observers, the Kenyan government is behaving creditably. "African countries that step up to tackle an African problem, rather than sitting back and then complaining when the West tries to do it for them, are to be applauded", writes the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall. There is some merit to the argument that Kenya is simply reacting to provocation from across the border. Many outside Kenya are familiar with the murder of David Tebbutt and the abductions of his wife Judith, the now-deceased Marie Dedieu, and the medical workers Blanca Thiebaut and Montserrat Serra.

But readers or viewers outside Kenya may be less familiar with the long-running disruption to humanitarian efforts, raids on border-posts, and fears of terrorist attacks in Nairobi caused by al-Shabaab. It is worth noting that no evidence has yet been provided by the Kenyan government that al-Shabaab carried out the abductions; while this seems plausible, little effort has been made in Nairobi to prove the case for war.

The actions of the Kenyan military in the second half of October 2011 are, in many respects, an extension of existing policy. The Kenyan police have long been providing training to their Somali counterparts on behalf of the Transitional National Government in Mogadishu. The Kenyan government has also made considerable efforts to bolster anti-al-Shabaab militias in southern Somalia, including the recruitment of Kenyan-Somalis on the Kenyan side of the border.

In the meantime, the government has grumbled about the burden placed upon it by anti-piracy efforts. It has also been content, in the words of a report from the Center for American Progress, to profit "from humanitarian traffic through its port and its status as an international development hub". Indeed, the same report argues, Nairobi has experienced an "economic boom as a result of Somali diaspora investment."

Such measures have done little to check the insecurity in border areas, however. Some local commentators were therefore relieved by the invasion and bullish in their forecasts. "Al Shabaab is used to pinching the bottom of a goat and now that they pinched that of the lion, that is more fiercer and more prepared, it should be in for trouble", Mathew Buyu of the United States International University in Nairobi told The Standard newspaper. For its part Kenya's navy set its army counterparts a poor example when its efforts to rescue Marie Dedieu resulted in the deaths of two officers after their boat capsized.

The security response

The Kenyan security forces seem to be eager for the fight, but there are many reasons to think that they are ill-suited to their mission. The armed forces stayed out of the post-election violence of January 2008 for the most part; at the time, responsibility for suppressing protests and subsequent clashes was left to the police and the paramilitary General Service Unit. The armed forces were, however (according to Human Rights Watch) "responsible for horrific abuses, including killings, torture and rape of civilians" in a security crackdown along the western border later in the same year (see "All the Men Have Gone: War Crimes in Keny'a Mt. Elgon Conflict", Human Rights Watch, 27 July 2008)

The Kenyan military is not attuned to winning hearts and minds. Nor is it used to fighting wars; its only major campaign since independence was the campaign against Somali irredentists seeking secession from Kenya and absorption by Somalia during the 1960s.

The task of establishing a buffer-zone in southern Somalia will be difficult enough, even more so the apparent goal of taking and holding the city of Kismayo that has been part of military planning over the past couple of years. Whatever the objective, there is, as other analysts note, little reason to think Kenya will succeed where the battle-hardened Ethiopians failed in recent years.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, whose armed forces are part of the African Union peacekeeping effort in Somalia, is another sceptic. In conversations with the United States assistant secretary of state, Johnnie Carson, and other senior American diplomats in January 2010, Museveni described the Kenyan military as a "career army" and wondered "Is Kenya used to fighting like this?"

The US seems to agree, or at least it did in December 2009 when one diplomat portrayed any plan by Kenya to occupy parts of southern Somalia "as a bad idea that would more likely add to Somalia’s instability than to help stabilise the country". The state department has been noticeably silent since the Kenyan operation began.

The Kenyan problem

But Kenya’s military adventure cannot usefully be considered solely in terms of an external threat from Somalia. There is, as with all conflicts, no single reason why the country finds itself at war. A complex mix of local politics and economics is at play, as well the activities of al-Shabaab.

The strong presence of al-Shabaab inside Kenya reflects the region's troubled history. Ever since the British colonial government and Kenyan nationalist leaders rode roughshod over the demands of Kenya’s Somali population to be allowed to join with Somalia at independence in 1963, the relationship between Kenyan-Somalis and the state has been fraught.

The opposition to Somali secession resulted in a low-intensity war in northeastern Kenya between 1963 and 1967. The official number of insurgents killed is 2,000, but it is likely that many more died during the war. Thousands more were forced from their homes during a campaign of compulsory resettlement. Once the war was over, promised development funds never materialised. Without any stabilising effect from Nairobi in the form of a legitimate state presence, northeastern Kenya remained prone to tremors emanating from across the border.

As Somalia spun into crisis in the 1980s, so cross-border incursions by armed gangs became more common. But efforts by the Kenyan government to restore a semblance of order made little effort to discriminate between those from Somalia itself and those from the local Somali population of the North Eastern Province. Restrictions were placed on movement on Kenyan-Somalis and the community was subject to numerous incidents of gross human-rights abuses. None was as significant nor remembered with as much bitterness by Kenyan-Somalis as the Wagalla massacre in February 1984 when at least 1,000 civilians were killed by the Kenyan security forces.

The continued failure of successive governments to extend the full benefits of citizenship to Kenya-Somalis has, unsurprisingly, meant that al-Shabaab has built up networks of support within Kenya itself (see the report of 18 July 2011). "We are not part of Somalia, and the Kenyan government treats us as second-class citizens", mayor Mohammed Gabow from Garissa town told al-Jazeera in 2009. "It’s a dilemma".

Such a sense of grievance has been reinforced on a regular basis. A security crackdown targeted at Somalis living inside the Kenyan border in October 2008, for instance, was described by Human Rights Watch as "a deliberate and brutal attack on the local civilian population".

The recent military action has been followed quickly by promises of tough action against Kenyan-Somalis. On 19 October 2011, a junior minister responsible for internal security, Orwa Ojodeh, promised parliament "a massive operation to get rid of Al Shabaab and Al Qaeda here in Nairobi." Al Shabaab is, Ojodeh claimed, "a big animal with its main network in Kenya and only a fraction of it extending into Somalia." Kenyan-Somalis now face tighter movement restrictions, which MPs representing them claim are both unconstitutional and unrelated to the conflict in Somalia.

It is true that some Kenyan-Somalis and migrants from Somalia are working actively in support of al-Shabaab in Nairobi. They play a vital role in the organisation through raising and transferring funds for the insurgency, handling contraband, recruiting new fighters and providing medical treatment to the injured. Moreover, support for al-Shabaab has recently grown amongst the wider Muslim community in Kenya. Strong efforts were made by the opposition in the 2007 election campaign to court the support of Muslim voters dismayed by the Kenyan participation in renditions and security purges linked to the global "war on terror".

But Islamophobia plays well with certain sections of an increasingly evangelised Christian Kenyan middle class (see "Kenya's referendum: 'in the name of God, no!'", 17 August 2010) . Several incidents - the terror attacks of 2002 in Mombasa, the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and (more distantly) the Norfolk Hotel bomb on new-year’s eve 1980 - are cited as evidence of a Muslim propensity for violence. A government that holds an annual national prayer breakfast can expect a war against self-proclaimed jihadists to play well with some voters, at least until the casualties begin to mount.

Al-Shabaab can operate inside Kenya only because of much wider problems that have (according to the International Peace Institute) also allowed organised crime to gain a foothold in Kenya. These include porous borders, impunity, corruption and the complicity of leading political figures have created a conducive environment for the groups's activities. It is relatively easy to move illicit funds in and out of the country and use it as the base for the movement of illegal goods, be it cocaine or smuggled charcoal from Somalia.

If the Kenyan government is serious about checking al-Shabaab’s operations, there are other ways of achieving this goal than invading southern Somalia. But if accusations by the US government are true, implementing measures that would also restrict international organised crime will be politically indelicate.

In this light, al-Shabaab can be understood as a Kenyan problem as well as a Somali one, and insecurity within Kenya's borders can be said to be a product of the shortcomings of the Kenyan state as well as the instability in its stateless neighbour. With the state’s footprint of effective rule far smaller than the boundaries drawn on a map, insecurity has been endemic in Kenya’s periphery for decades. This no-man’s-land makes up vast swathes of territory thousands of kilometres long and hundreds deep. The state’s presence is often invisible, policing inadequate, firearms readily available and the resident populations engaged in fierce competition for grazing and water.

At times of crisis, such as political upheaval or drought, that equation often produces bloodshed. Even as troops massed on the Somali border over the weekend of 14-16 October, for instance, clashes between Borana and Somali communities some 500 kilometres inside the border took the lives of ten people.

It is hard, furthermore, to argue that al-Shabaab presents any greater risk to the residents of northern Kenya than Ethiopian cattle-raiders. In just one incident in early May 2011, up to sixty-nine Kenyan citizens were killed along that border after they crossed just inside Ethiopia to buy food at a market.

The development lens

So why do tourists and aid workers abducted or killed by al-Shabaab seem to matter more to the government in Nairobi than the many more of its citizens killed along the border with Ethiopia? In addition to the ideas discussed above, the answer might lie in developments in and around the Lamu archipelago over the past few years.

Lamu is a designated "world heritage site" and was long a sleepy backwater - a stopping-off point on the hippy trail, and a destination for other adventurous travellers attracted by its beguiling mix of tropical paradise and rich Muslim culture. Now host to numerous high-end hotels, Lamu and nearby resorts account for nearly a quarter of all tourists who head to Kenya’s Indian Ocean beaches. Tourism is a vital part of the economy, bringing in $800 million a year at a time when the shilling is plummeting in value. Tourists are, as expected, cancelling their holidays in line with travel advice from the British and French governments.

Tourism matters to this story only insofar as the development of Lamu has meant Kenya’s major economic interests have encroached on the internal, unofficial buffer-zone that once protected the key centres of economic activity in southern, highland parts of the country from the more unstable periphery. Lamu has become an important part of ambitious development plans funded by China that involve the wider northeast African region.

The area has been earmarked as a hub for transport links, a new port, an oil pipeline stretching from South Sudan, and a refinery. Whereas once the Kenyan government could afford to turn a blind eye to events on the archipelago and its hinterland, the area now matters. And not just to Kenya; landlocked Ethiopia and South Sudan see such ties to Kenya as a way of escaping from their own difficult relationships with Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan.

Both investors and likely customers have viewed recent events with trepidation. The threat of piracy unnerves shipping companies and political instability concerns other investors. The Kenyan government has sought to reassure those who will ultimately pay for the projects. The archipelago is, President Mwai Kibaki said in July 2011, "the next frontier of development in our country and region". In part because of that, Lamu now finds itself on the frontline of a war. 

 

About the author

Daniel Branch is an assistant professor in history at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011 (Yale University Press, 2010/2011)

More On

Daniel Branch is an assistant professor in history at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya: Counterinsurgency, Civil War, and Decolonization (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2010 (Yale University Press, 2011)

Also by Daniel Branch in openDemocracy:

"Kenya's referendum: 'in the name of God, no!'" (17 August 2010)