Five days into its military incursion into Somalia, Kenya’s military forces are closing in on an insurgent stronghold in what is their first major military operation outside of Kenyan soil since the end of the colonial period.
The operation – prompted by a number of provocations, most notably the kidnappings of foreign tourists from Kenya's port city of Lamu and the kidnappings of aid workers along the border – is a surprising show of military muscle for a country that has preferred to negotiate its way out of trouble with neighbors. And while the incursion, called Operation Protect the Nation, is still in first days, Kenyans are already voicing concerns about its strategic goals and whether there is an exit strategy.
“Fighting Al Shabab [the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group in Somalia] cannot be a knee-jerk reaction, but a deliberate and fully planned campaign that should have taken not less than three to four months of preparation,” wrote Imaana Laibuta, a retired Kenyan Army major, in a column in the Nation newspaper, adding that Kenyans have a right to ask their government if “their soldiers are fighting a good fight and not an unplanned campaign in reaction to the hue and cry following the recent kidnappings of foreigners.”
Any operation in Somalia carries great risks for Kenya, including the likely backlash of Al Shabab militants or operatives against military targets as well as civilian targets such as tourist areas, airports, and congested urban zones.
For evidence of the new risks Kenyans could face, they need not look further than neighboring Uganda, where Al Shabab launched twin suicide bombings that killed at least 74 people during a World Cup soccer match in July of 2010. Al Shabab said it launched the attack because of Uganda’s military support of Al Shabab’s enemy, the Somali government.
Humanitarian aid organizations also have warned that military operations within Somalia are likely to cause even greater suffering for hundreds of thousands of civilian populations already at risk of starvation during the ongoing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa region.
Small wonder, then, that Kenyans want assurance that all of this is well planned and worthwhile.
“By evoking the charter of the UN to claim the right to self defense, and by going all the way to Mogadishu to make a bilateral agreement with the Somali government to fight Al Shabab, Kenya is showing they are ready to use military force,” says Joakim Gundel, a commercial sector analyst and Somalia expert for Katuni Consultancy, which works with humanitarian aid groups working in south central Somalia.
“But on the other hand, this is risky because Al Shabab will do everything to trigger a reaction of the clans against Kenyan forces,” Mr. Gundel says.
Kidnapped foreigners and famine
Kenya’s tourism industry received a shock yesterday, with the announcement that a French woman kidnapped in October by Somali gunmen had died this week.
The cause of Marie Dedieu’s death is unknown, but it is possible that she died because she was deprived of her regular medication, sent to her through intermediaries by the French government. The condition of two kidnapped Spanish aid workers with Doctors Without Borders and of a British tourist taken from Lamu is also unknown.
Doctors Without Borders, which continues to run hospitals in what is officially the world’s largest refugee camp complex, in Dadaab, Kenya issued statements urging the release of its two Spanish logisticians, who were kidnapped last week, and made pains to distance themselves from the Kenyan military’s operations.
The British aid group Oxfam noted that the operation couldn’t have come at a worse time, when 1.5 million Somalis have been already forced from their homes because of drought and conflict, and when 750,000 Somalis are at risk of death because of “deteriorating conditions.”
“We are extremely concerned that the current fighting is likely to have a serious impact on communities left struggling to survive by the famine,” Oxfam’s regional director, Fran Equiza, said in an e-mailed statement. “The top priority at the moment must be making sure that people get aid quickly. But increased conflict will make it even more difficult to provide them with food, water, and other life-saving assistance.”
Technically, Kenya isn't at war
Yet in Nairobi itself, aside from the front pages of newspapers, there is little outward sign that the country is at war. In fact, technically, Kenya isn’t at war, because the commander in chief, President Mwai Kibaki hasn’t officially declared a state of war. Indeed, Kenya’s top leaders have largely gone silent on the Somali incursion, relying on military spokesmen to provide daily updates.
But while life in Nairobi largely goes on – or in the case of traffic, returns to its normal grinding halt – security around Nairobi, particularly at five star hotels and the international airport, has been raised visibly, and police have begun heavy sweeps of ethnic Somali neighborhoods such as the thriving Somali business hub of Eastleigh.
Internal Security assistant minister Orwa Ojodeh defended tougher actions in Somali neighborhoods in a Parliament meeting yesterday, saying that the stepped up police presence in Eastleigh, including the removal of street vendors along the perimeter wall that surrounds an Air Force base in Eastleigh, were in the interests of national security.
“This [Al Shabab] is like a big animal, with the tail in Somalia and the head of the animal is hidden here in Eastleigh,” Mr. Ojodeh was quoted by the Nation newspaper as saying.
Al Shabab’s military spokesman, Sheikh Abdi Aziz Abu Musab, meanwhile, announced on Somalia’s pro-Shabab radio station, Al Furqaan, that “We will face the Kenyan invaders and will overrun them with God’s will, as we did with the American and Ethiopian invaders.”