Kenya’s Battle for Somalia

On 1 October, Kenyan, Somali, and tribal forces advanced into the centre of Kismayo, al-Shabaab’s last major stronghold. The operation, under the banner of the African Union’s AMISOM peacekeeping force, has denied the Islamic terrorists a major source of income. But taking the city may have been the easiest part of their job. To administer Kismayo, the Kenyan forces at the lead of the operation will have to negotiate an entangled balance of power, mixing good governance with serving the interests of clans who will support them.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo © 2012, some rights reserved

After deploying to Somalia last year in pursuit of al-Shabaab forces involved with a cross-border kidnapping, Kenyan forces remained in the country to fight insurgents, at first with only questionable permission from the Somali government. For much of this time they have remained stationary, but their presence has not gone unnoticed. In coordination with local militias, AMISOM units, and even Somali National Army units, Kenya has taken the fight to al-Shabaab. With the capture of Kismayo, the majority of southern Somalia’s Jubaland is now at least nominally under pro-government control, unlike much of the rest of the country.

Administering Kismayo, even absent an extremist insurgency, has traditionally been a struggle. In the past, the Marehan, Majerten and Ogaden clans, among many others, have fought to control the city. Each clan seeks to maximise its share of the revenues from Kismayo’s economic power, particularly its airport and port on the Indian Ocean. Al-Shabaab was able to find a fair formula for dividing the spoils, and they backed administration with an imposing military threat. Kenya will need to govern more kindly, in addition to handling terrorist attacks destablising the region.

This is not the first time foreign soldiers have beaten al-Shabaab back into an insurgency. Several years ago, an operation by Ethiopia was able to drive the terrorists from the cities of Somalia. However, the history of rivalry between Ethiopia and Somalia meant that Ethiopian soldiers were easily portrayed as foreign aggressors and al-Shabaab was able to maintain popular support and stay alive. They organised an insurgency until Ethiopia was forced to withdraw. Bombs have already attacked the fragile peace in Kismayo: proof that al-Shabaab does not intend to walk away from the fight. Only good governance, acceptance by regional figures, and a careful but aggressive expulsion of insurgents will ultimately prevent a recurrence of the Ethiopian defeat.

While the Kenyan forces theoretically operate under the umbrella of the AU’s AMISOM force, they will hold a major share of responsibility for managing the region. Only in early June of this year were Kenyan units integrated into the AMISOM force, and they appear to have maintained operational independence. They have focused on southern Somalia while the primary AU forces concentrate on expanding the zone of control around the capital of Mogadishu. The Somali Federal Government, centered in Mogadishu, has little ability to project its power in the south. Even the Somalia National Army forces said to have joined the assault on Kismayo are occasionally claimed to in fact consist solely of local militias. The independence of their operation mirrors Kenyan interests – Somalia’s border with Kenya is in Jubaland. Bringing stability to the region and improving Kenyan access to the major port of Kismayo will be a great boon for Kenya.

Its stake in the region is only one of many reasons Kenya will have a difficult time being seen as neutral in the conflict. As well as being Somalia’s next-door neighbour, there is a good deal of ethnic overlap between Kenya and Somalia, which has caused tensions in the past. The Kenyan defence minister is in fact ethnically Somali, belonging to the Ogaden tribe, the group who controls the land in the area near Kismayo. The Ras Kamboni Movement, one of the local militias who have played a key role in assisting Kenyan forces, has similar ties to the Ogaden. It has been reported that the commander of the Ras Kamboni organisation, Ahmed Madobe, has been appointed to head the administration in Kismayo, a clear sign of favouritism on the part of Kenya. In navigating the various interests of the clans in the area, the Kenyans must avoid being seen as taking this favouritism to excess, while ensuring that their power base among the Ogaden is not weakened.

Al-Shabaab’s presence makes handling clan rivalries even more dangerous. If one of the clans feels that it is being shut out, al-Shabaab may seize the opportunity to gain an ally, creating even more strife in clan relationships. According to the BBC, several major clan leaders were murdered in the days leading up to the attack, magnifying the power vacuum the Kenyans will find as they try to control the city. If Madobe’s administration governs as a puppet of Kenya or the Ogaden, violence will likely ensue. Kenya’s invitation of clan leaders to power-sharing negotiations is a good start, and a fair makeup of a transitional authority would make great progress towards stability.

It is possible that Kenya’s intervention in Somalia will be of great benefit to East Africa. In fact, given appropriate work by Kenyan forces, the outlook is quite positive. But this task will not be easy. The Kenyans must manage a violent insurgency while keeping the will of the people on their side, which is no easy task on its own. In addition, they must manage the tribal forces that allowed them to take the city and ensure that they do not further destabilize the region. Most importantly, they must find a formula for managing and distributing the resources of Kismayo, a trick which al-Shabaab mastered and which will be particularly difficult when allegations of bias will come naturally to the leaders of the clans not related to the Ogaden. It will be hard work, but a violent Islamist group has been denied the resources to carry on operations; the future looks bright if Somalia’s neighbors will continue to work for it to become a strong, independent nation.

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