Written by George Ogola (1)
Walking into any of Nairobi’s shopping malls, hotels and supermarkets today, one is now frisked by anxious security guards with metal detectors. The city appears trapped in a suspended sense of foreboding about a big unknown. It is a city very much on edge. Kenya’s war against Al-Shabaab in Somalia passed its 100th day in January 2012, but very few know when or how it will end. The port city of Kismayu, a main target for the Kenya Defence Force (KDF), remains in Al-Shabaab’s hands. The growing sense of uncertainly over the war, coupled with militant rhetoric by Al-Shabaab about retributive action within Kenya’s territory, is increasingly unsettling nerves in the country. Many are now resigned to the fact that this is a war that will not be won militarily.
Kenya’s military intervention came following the kidnapping of a number of aid workers and foreign nationals within its territory by suspected Al-Shabaab militants in 2011. The military intervention was, however, unusual. Kenya has generally avoided open military confrontation with its neighbours despite the fact that a number of these nations have been characterised by political instability since the 1970s having a significant political, social and economic impact on Kenya. For instance, the country hosts the Dadaab refugee camp, considered the largest refugee camp in the world.(2) The camp has nearly half a million refugees, mainly of Somali origin who have escaped hunger as well as lawlessness and clan wars in their country. Other camps in the country have previously hosted refugees mainly from South Sudan.
Somalia’s states, regions and districts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This paper assesses the implications of Kenya’s involvement in the war against Al-Shabaab. It argues that while the Kenyan Government wanted to make an unambiguous statement of intent about the seriousness of the country’s commitment to protecting its borders, it did not foresee the war evolving into a broader international ideological conflict. The involvement of international jihadists in the conflict has raised the stakes in the war. Kenya must now fight a military and an ideological war. It must also fight Al-Shabaab not only outside the country but within it; a challenging prospect with no end in sight.
‘Statelessness’ in Somalia and the politics of oil in northern Kenya
The continued situation of ‘statelessness’ in Somalia and the increasing militarisation of clanist and religious militia in the country have raised the stakes regarding the Somalia problem. There are fears that the country has become an incubator for international jihadists, which has forced the hand of the United States (US) to intervene, albeit indirectly. The US has offered support for the war in the form of military training and equipment to Kenyan forces. They have also been involved in drone attacks against Al-Shabaab in Somalia.(3) This intervention has had two effects. One, it has animated fundamentalist rhetoric against the ‘invaders’, seen to include the African Union’s (AU) interventionist force, the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), meant to support the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Two, the countries involved in protecting the TFG, which include Uganda, Burundi and Ethiopia, have also received substantial military support from the US, which has raised regional anxieties.
The latter point, although less talked about, is likely to be the subject of future debate as it is silently reshaping the geopolitics of the region. The countries involved in AMISON have now significantly increased their military spending prompting talk of an arms race in the region. Indeed, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), in 2012 Uganda’s military budget for the first time surpassed Kenya’s despite the fact that the former has a much smaller economy. The country is said to have spent US$ 1.02 billion while Kenya spent US$ 735 million on military hardware in 2012.(4) If this trend continues, it will no doubt encourage a regional arms race as Kenya’s involvement in Somalia now all but legitimises increased military spending.