In October of this year Kenyan forces began a large-scale incursion across the Somalian border to strike at militants, including the Islamist group Al-Shabaab, in retaliation for several high profile kidnappings conducted on Kenyan soil. Since the first incursion, the Kenyan military has carried out numerous operations and has offered to integrate its troops with the African Union forces already based in Mogadishu. Despite having withdrawn from the capital in August, Al Shabaab continue to control large swathes of territory in South Central Somalia. Kenyan forces are currently stationed in three separate locations in Somalia, and have declared that they intend to take the fight, including airstrikes, to Al Shabaab in numerous different areas. They have warned civilians to leave areas where the Islamist group is operating.
Kenya’s recent war footing marks a substantial shift in strategy towards the Somali situation and highlights Nairobi’s concern that the conflict has the potential to further destabilise the wider region. The kidnappings of aid workers and tourists seems to have been the tipping point, with implications for the tourism industry, especially in coastal areas around Lamu near to the Somali border, being clear to Nairobi. Al Shabaab have demonstrated their willingness to conduct terrorist activity beyond their borders, though it previously targeted countries such as Uganda who were providing troops for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces in Mogadishu, and were accused of being in league with the ‘War on Terror’ prerogatives of the UK/US security services.
Kenya is no stranger to the effects of instability in Somalia, and whilst it has seen a massive influx of refugees fleeing catastrophic famine conditions this year, it should be remembered that the Dadaab refugee camp has existed for twenty years; a product of the collapse of General Bare’s Somali state in 1991. Furthermore, Kenya has experienced terrorist attacks on its own soil (the US embassy bombings in 1998 and an attack in 2002 on an Israeli owned hotel in Mombasa) which are believed to have been orchestrated by non-Somali militants via Somali territory.
What has prompted Kenya’s shift to a military solution for the current Somali situation? Some analysts argue that Kenya’s strategy may involve the future establishment of a kind of buffer zone within Somalia, controlled by anti-Al Shabaab forces. This territory would potentially be a semi-autonomous ‘Azania’ made up of the Gedo, Lower and Middle Juba regions. Potential leaders and basic institutions exist in this area, though the establishment would depend on the elimination of the Al Shabaab presence and the blessing of the Mogadishu-based Transitional Federal Government of Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. Sharif’s government has been highly cautious in its response to Kenyan intervention for risk of fuelling nationalist sentiment which could ultimately benefit Al Shabaab’s ideological position as defenders of Somalia from foreign interference. This Kenyan strategy may in addition meet opposition from Ethiopia, concerned about links between a future ‘Azania’, and clan groupings in the Somali territory of the Ogaden, which it controls.
With talk of Somali ‘buffer zones’ it should be recognised that both Kenya and Ethiopia’s ethnically Somali territories, historically ceded to them by the powers of British colonialism, have always existed, in a sense, to serve that very function. Both Kenya’s North Eastern Province and Ethiopia’s Ogaden have been a source of great regional tension leading to military confrontation. It was conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ogaden in the late 1970s that set events in motion, ultimately leading to the collapse of the military regime in Mogadishu, and two decades of an essentially stateless Somalia.
Kenya’s ethnically Somali territories may have acquired increased strategic importance with the potential routing of an oil pipeline from Southern Sudan, southeast to Lamu and the Kenyan coast. This development has come as a result of South Sudanese independence (a precedent which may affect secession claims elsewhere in the Somali context, i.e. the northern breakaway Republic of Somaliland) and the imperative of the new Juba government in South Sudan to find an oil export route that does not involve Khartoum in the north. Although it remains to be seen whether this pipeline project will come to fruition, it is clear that the current security situation in the border regions would not be conducive for progress on this front. Also in the realm of hydrocarbon geopolitics, is the speculation that a potential ‘Azania’ (Kenya’s buffer to its buffer region) would be home to offshore oil reserves.
Ethiopia’s strategic concerns continue to revolve around the perennial fear of an encroaching and unifying Islamism in the Somali Horn which would destabilise its own Somali regions. Addis Ababa also remains vigilant of Eritrea’s support for its anti-Ethiopian/Kenyan proxies (which did, and still may include Al Shabaab) and what it feels are efforts to draw Ethiopian forces into another debilitating conflict on the Somali front.
Interlaced with regional concerns of Ethiopia and Kenya are wider prerogatives of the on going global ‘War on Terror’. The US is no doubt monitoring the most recent Kenyan intervention very closely, possibly through the eyes of its un-manned drones which are now taking off from Ethiopian airbases. Israel too has engaged directly with Kenya offering support in securing its borders, in return for Kenyan forces handing over militants involved in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli owned hotel in Mombasa.
Will such complex dynamics of regional and international strategy coalesce around a military solution to bring stability to South Central Somalia, and a reprieve for the countless civilians affected by conflict and famine? This is highly difficult to predict. Not only has past foreign military engagement in the Somali region failed to stabilise the country or eliminate militant Islamism, but also in some notable instances, it has helped to create the very context in which fragmentation and conflict have grown. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 and the covert US assassination and kidnapping operations which preceded it, were both aimed at decapitating the then most recent emergence of a framework of Islamic Courts, which had succeeded in bringing a degree of stability to various areas, and garnered a level of popular support. This ideologically diverse movement which spanned a spectrum from ‘moderate’ to ‘extreme’ Islamism (or ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Muslims in the parlance of the War on Terror) was expelled from Mogadishu, and the nationalist-based insurgency against the Ethiopian occupiers and their US paymasters served to empower Al Shabaab, a hitherto relatively minor component of the Islamic Courts structure.
The past diversity of the Courts movement is attested to today by the fact that one of its former leaders, the ‘moderate’ Sheikh Sharif, is now the president of the beleaguered but internationally recognised and militarily supported Transitional Federal Government which is struggling to assert itself in Mogadishu. Regardless of the strategic prospects, it is difficult to see increasing foreign militarisation, including the continued use of air power, as having a positive humanitarian effect on an already brutalised and hungry population. Time will ultimately tell, although the history of external strategic concerns playing out on Somali soil, combined with the complexity of inter-clan/militia politics of local actors, gives little current grounds for optimism.
Photo Credits: Associated Press, Ben Curtis / AP
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