Whose bidding is the KDF doing in Somalia now?
On Wednesday the US announced it was sending about 80 troops to Chad to help in the hunt for about 300 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. This adds to the surveillance assistance the Nigerian government has been getting from the US government.
The US involvement, right on the heels of the Paris conference on Boko Haram last week, is yet another reminder of the international dimension of the security threats to African states posed by groups like Boko Haram, al-Shaabab or al-Qaeda in the Magreb.
But while such a turn might help bring attention and international assistance in dealing with these groups, it also comes with risks. By internationalising their security challenges, African states expose themselves to the possibility of becoming mere theatres of the fight between the US (and the West) and transnational terrorist organisations.
As the saying goes, ndovu wanapopigana, ni nyasi huumia. Which brings me to the Kenyan case. Back in October 2011 when the Kenya Defence Forces ( KDF) invaded Somalia, we were told our two main objectives were to defeat or weaken al-Shaabab and to protect ourselves from sporadic attacks and kidnappings from the terror group and its affiliates. In other words, Kenya’s involvement in Somalia was purely motivated by domestic security concerns.
However, as the mission progressed the narrative of a Kenyan mission, driven by Kenyan interests, began to disintegrate. First we joined the African Union Mission in Somalia, (Amisom) – most likely for pecuniary reasons.
And second, it emerged that the US was a major player in Kenya’s Somalia strategy. The US maintains a Somalia-focused presence at Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Lamu County. Washington also operates the Humanitarian Peace Support School in Nairobi County, focusing on training Amisom troops.
Now, there is nothing wrong with being part of global efforts to fight transnational terror groups. But as a sovereign country, such engagements must always be in the interest of the Kenyan public.
Kenya must be careful not to allow itself to become a pawn in a war that serves no immediate genuinely Kenyan interests. Rethinking our Somalia strategy will require crucial adjustments – some operational, while others political. For starters, even though the KDF in Somalia technically operates under Amisom, we must ensure that the mission’s focus remains circumscribed in order to guard against mission creep.
Back in 2011 reports indicated that we are in Somalia to neutralise Al-Shaabab and to potentially establish a buffer zone territory in Jubaland.
Are the KDF officers on the ground sticking to this mandate? How much civilian oversight is there to ensure that this happens? The political reassessment is just as onerous, if not more. Somalia watchers know the pernicious effect that its clannish political culture has had on political development in the country, going all the way back to the 1960s.
It goes without saying that in order to guarantee success in Somalia, KDF must ensure that it plays its cards right with regard to establishing alliances with clan militias.
Furthermore, it must not allow itself to be used as a tool by either Somali interests within and without Somalia (including here in Kenya) or the US military. Lastly, strict civilian oversight is required to make sure that indiscipline does not corrode the integrity of Kenya’s inaugural military adventure abroad.
Last year a UN report indicated that Kenyan troops were engaged in the illicit trade in charcoal, an activity that produced significant revenues for Al-Shaabab.
One only hopes that the situation has since changed. The point of the foregoing account is to illustrate the complexity of the matter at hand. Our approach to Somalia must necessarily be multifaceted and flexible.
As such, any kind of international arrangements that we get into must not put us in a straightjacket with regard to strategy. Kenyan interests must always be front and centre.
The last thing Kenya needs is to become a mere host to a conflict pitting the US and Al-Shaabab and its affiliates. As a country we appreciate all the help we can get from partners like the US.
But we must also play our role and make sure that cooperation never comes at our expense. Instead of engaging in histrionics of faux-nationalism against the West, the Kenyan government should be upfront with the Kenyan people about the nature of our security cooperation with the US on the specific case of Somalia.
This is the only way that the government can generate political cover for itself whenever our domestic and regional security interests with regard to Somalia do not coincide with those of the US. Just like with the case of economic cooperation with China, only transparency will guarantee maximal benefit to Kenyans from the security cooperation with the US.
By Ken Opalo