Kenya’s pursuit of Al Shabaab into Somalia has been received with caution by Ugandan authorities, who are still studying its broader implications for regional security.
Uganda People’s Defence Forces spokesman Felix Kulayigye said the decision by Kenya to make a military incursion into Somalia was proof that “this is a regional issue, an African issue.”
Kulayigye suggested that the Ugandan military had been aware of Kenya’s entry into Somalia before the rest of the world got to know. “We have been aware of what Kenya is doing,” he said.
Uganda has been involved militarily in Somalia since 2007, leading a United Nations-backed peace mission that also features soldiers from Burundi.
They remain the only countries to have contributed peacekeepers to the African Union Mission in Somalia, or Amisom.
Kenya’s military expedition into southern Somalia, reportedly to tame a cross-border problem that threatens its booming tourism industry, effectively gives the war on Al Shabaab an intensive, if fragmented, aspect.
Some analysts say that, even if it does not necessarily complicate the mandate of Amisom, Kenya’s military presence in Somalia could lead to the hardening of anti-foreigner sentiment among ordinary Somalis.
Phillip Kasaija, a Somalia expert at Makerere University, asked, “Even if security is for all of us, is it a legal intervention?” Mr Kasaija said the answer was dependent, to a great degree, on how long Kenya stayed in Somalia and what exactly it carried out while there.
It is not clear at this point if this will be a limited intervention or a long-term incursion that lasts months.
Uganda has about 6,000 soldiers propping up the transitional government in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
The peacekeeping mission, financed by the West, has benefited from President Yoweri Museveni’s personal investment in it as well as his dogged belief that the whole of Somalia can be pacified by foreigners.
Museveni has offered to supply the necessary troops to pacify Somalia if the international community is prepared to meet the cost, but the money has always seemed like a deal-breaker.
In August, when Al Shabaab suddenly retreated from Mogadishu, Uganda offered 2,000 more troops to Amisom, which was keen to consolidate its gains in the capital. But the additional soldiers have not yet been deployed there, according to Col. Kulayigye.
Uganda’s seemingly lonely presence in Somalia seems to have been rectified by the entry of Kenya, even if Nairobi’s objectives are different and somewhat opaque. Officially, Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia was hastened by a series of raids by pirates who threatened the safety of Kenya’s beaches and coastal resorts.
Kenya’s practical goal is to create some sort of buffer zone against militants from Somalia, a goal that may have the effect of weakening Al Shabaab’s ability to wage war in the Somali capital — because it diverts the attention of Islamists who have until now been firmly focused on the big prize: Mogadishu.
James Mugume, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kampala, said it was too early to comment on the implications of Kenya’s Somalia adventure for regional security.
“I have asked our people in Nairobi to give me some analysis,” Mr Mugume said.
Meanwhile, Islamist militants in Somalia have vowed to take revenge on Kenya, accusing it of occupying a sovereign country.
“Kenya has joined the list of occupiers of another country’s land, and history will tell what happens to their aggression,” Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a noted Islamist who is listed by the US as a terrorist, was quoted as saying.
“We shall fight Kenya on all fronts possible. We are not afraid to fight to the death because Allah will reward us if we die.”
In July 2010, during the soccer World Cup final, Al Shabaab militants exploded bombs at two entertainment spots in Kampala, killing at least 76 people.
The worst act of terror on Ugandan soil, the attack was executed as revenge for Uganda’s peacekeeping role in Mogadishu.
Angelo Izama, an analyst with Fanaka kwa Wote, a think tank on regional politics and security, said it would be difficult to harmonise Kenya’s national interests in Somalia with those of Amisom.
“The question is whether politically they will be working on the same page,” Izama said. “The ideal would have been for Kenya to have joined Amisom.”
But even if Kenya had wanted to join Amisom, the country would have been a problematic candidate simply because, like Ethiopia, it shares a frontier with Somalia. The Horn of Africa nation has lacked a stable government since 1991, when Siad Barre was ousted.
The dictator’s exit presaged a violent power struggle that still remains unresolved.
The emergence of Al Shabaab, which has been linked to Al Qaeda, added a uniquely violent dimension to a conflict that continues to degrade the value of life in Somalia.