As the Kenya Army enters the third week of its military campaign in southern Somalia, the African Union peacekeeping force is upping its pressure on the Al Shabaab around the capital Mogadishu, with the plan of “bringing some order” to the war-ravaged country by the end of December.
In conversations with diplomats, government officials, and intelligence sources in the region, a clear picture has started emerging of a war that has been in the making over the past five years and one that could dramatically reorder the Somali state, and just possibly bring about the peace that has proved so elusive over the past two decades.
According to these sources, Kenya’s military offensive was timely, coming as it did when the Al Shabaab militants are at their weakest and at a time when there is convergence of opinion in the wider East African region about what to do about the crisis in Somalia.
However, a clearer strategy crafted by Somali leaders and regional players in the conflict is also emerging. The first step, the sources say, is to create three new “areas of influence” in the rest of Somalia, beside Somaliland and Puntland, which now function as independent territories.
These territories would provide a buffer zone for Kenya and Ethiopia.
Already, Ethiopia has created a buffer zone spanning Galgadud, Hiraan, Bay, Bakool and Gedo (See map above).
Kenya’s military ambition is to create a buffer zone spanning Gedo El Wak, Middle and Lower Juba regions.
Ultimately, these regions will be governed as semi-automous states at first that could one day form part of a strong united federal government of Somalia.
The second step after the fall of Kismayu would to be to hand over all “liberated” areas to Amisom.
This, according to diplomats, would mean that the UN Security Council would be forced to reconsider upgrading Amisom into a full-fledged mission with the recommended minimum troop level of 20,000 soldiers.
So far, Amisom has about 9,500 troops in and around Mogadishu — and only two East African Community countries, Burundi and Uganda, have contributed.
There are plans to add 3,000 soldiers, but no one has offered to pay for them. Both Uganda and Kenya have been calling on the Security Council to upgrade Amisom.
The third step down the road, is for Amisom to hand over a pacified Somalia to the UN.
“If Kenya and other regional players can stabilise Somalia a little,” Ethiopia’s ambassador to Kenya, Shemsudin Ahmed, told The East-African last Thursday, “it will require more, not less, support from the rest of Africa and the international community.
It would make sense to hand over to the UN at that point,” he said. Ethiopia supports the Kenyan invasion, which mirrors its strategy five years ago.
Ethiopia, which went to war without the support of the international community with the exception of America, learnt some hard lessons.
After Ethiopia made its foray into Somalia in late 2006 to fight the Islamic Union Courts regime led, ironically, by the country’s current President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, to prop up the more internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government that was then hiding out in Baidoa, it withdrew just over two years later in the face of international criticism.
Ethiopia then focused on creating a “buffer” zone with Somalia along the common border. Amisom already controls the bulk of Mogadishu, and the plan is for it to also establish a sphere of influence in Middle and Lower Shabelle and the coastal area of Galgaduud.
Kenya would establish a sphere of influence in Lower Juba, Middle Juba, and Lower Gedo and, of course, gain access to the key port of Kismayu, which is also the economic lifeline and greatest strategic asset of Al Shabaab.
However, as Kenya’s military campaign in Somalia clocks two weeks, the major cause of concern among diplomats, military and intelligence experts is starting to turn from taking over the Port of Kismayu into how to manage victory.
With Amisom increasing pressure in Mogadishu and the Kenya Defence Force continuing its onslaught in the south, experts told The EastAfrican that the capability of Al Shabaab to continue fighting on multiple battlefronts will face a significant challenge.
“There is no doubt we shall get Al Shabaab out,” said a source within Amisom, “but the key problem for Kenya is management of victory.
The moment the city of Kismayu falls, who will control it? There is a major potential for conflict between Kenya and Ethiopia.”
This potential conflict is symbolised by two men who experts say are being fronted as potential leaders of Jubaland, the new semi-autonomous state Kenya wants to help establish.
One of the men is former Somali Defence minister and “president” of the Azania state, Mohamed Gandi, who is said to be favoured by the bosses of Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service as well as the French.
Ethiopians are wary of Gandi because his clan, the Ogadeni, harbour territorial ambitions of one day creating a super-state carved out of southern Somalia, southern Ethiopia and a huge chunk of Kenya’s North Eastern Province.
Then there is Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, known as Madobe, who is the leader of the Ras Kamboni Movement that is allied with the Transitional Federal Goverment.
Madobe is favoured by the Kenya military establishment because he comes to the table as a commander with troops, while Gandi is a politician with good business connections.
Managing local politics in Kismayu could easily see Kenya getting sucked into proxy fights with regional powers such as Ethiopia and Eritrea that have traditionally characterised the conflict in Somalia.
There is also the risk of getting entangled in clan politics that could easily turn the groundswell of support for Kenya by ordinary Somalis as a liberator and turn it into a foreign occupier.
In order to walk the fine line between invader and liberator, the Kenyan military has been taking a very cautious approach of turning over towns that have been captured to the local communities through the Transitional National Government.
However, when it comes to the port of Kismayu, the situation might turn tricky fast.
Mr Ahmed however downplays the potential conflict with Kenya over the establishment of the governing authority in Jubaland, claiming that Ethiopia has a good working relationship with both Gandi and Madobe.
However, even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
A few days after the Kenyan incursion, Sheik Sharif threw a spanner in the works when he opposed Kenya’s military campaign. Everyone seems to have been caught by surprise, and the Kenya government wrote to the TGF to demand an explanation.
There was speculation that Sharif was playing to the Somali nationalist gallery, privately supporting the Kenya action, but maintaining his national credibility by publicly opposing it.
There seemed to have been widespread agreement too that Sheik Sharif was wary that the Kenyans were going to instal a regional government dominated by the Ogadeni clan in Kismayu, and that this would only create a Jubaland or Azania state that would operate like Puntland or Somaliland, and entrench the partition of Somalia.
Some commentators saw the secret hand of Ethiopia, which was alleged to fear that Kenya’s Ogadeni proxy, with the lucrative Kismayu port and its revenues in its control, would back the Ogadeni National Liberation Front (ONLF), which is seeking to break away from Ethiopia and join a dreamed of Greater Somalia.
However, Ethiopia’s ambassador Ahmed denies the latter, telling The EastAfrican that he and other mission officials in Nairobi “talk regularly to… Gandi, the Nairobi-based Ogadeni leader and governor-in-waiting, who is likely to take over in Kismayu.”
He also said the majority of the Ogadeni are in Ethiopia, and they are leading lights in the politics of Ethiopia’s Somali State.
However, diplomats close to Sharif said a Jubaland or Azania state is the least of his worries.
Rather, it is his view of the role of Al Shabaab and the period after the one-year extension of the TFG extension, that is influencing his remarks on the Kenya campaign.
As for Kampala, it was President Yoweri Museveni who managed to get Somali groups to agree to extend the term of the TFG, which was expiring in August, by a year.
The international community, which initially opposed the extension, were on the spot once the Somalis agreed. Besides Uganda, which has the bulk of the troops in Amisom, made the argument for extension to the international community primarily as something that the peacekeeping forces needed to consolidate the gains they and the TFG forces were making against Al Shabaab in the Mogadishu region.
Sharif, the diplomats say, is “happy to see the Shabaab expelled from Mogadishu. But he is not ready to see it defeated.”
This is because, they say, his plan was to use the Shabaab to continue his stay in power when the extension expires next year.
The plan, they say, would involve Al Shabaab calling for a ceasefire, then entering into talks with Sharif, on the basis of which a new transitional government with him at the head would be formed — and he would thus get another term without an election.
Sharif’s plan, if that is what it is, seems to be unravelling.
Al Shabaab has reportedly asked for a truce, although this must be seen as a move by the Somali and less hardline faction, not the foreign faction of the militant organisation, who want to preserve some of their spoils around Kismayu.
The one thing that all Ethiopian, Kenyan, Ugandan, Burundian and Amisom officials The EastAfrican spoke to seem to agree on, though, is that if Sharif or the TFG embrace the Shabaab, then it is over for him. He would likely be ousted from power in seconds.
In the meantime, Sharif and other players in Somalia are moving away from their traditional friends and allies in the Middle East, toward Turkey.
Turkey’s role, diplomats say, is one of the factors that make this moment in Somalia ripe for peace.
Turkey is rising as the new Muslim power in the world, and unlike the theocracies in the Middle East, it is eager to showcase the “modern” face of Islam, to show that a country can be Muslim and be a democracy, with free markets, full rights for women, and play a role in the world without a persecution or victim complex.
Its involvement in Somalia would help more secular and moderate elements to rise.
Secondly, despite the continuing attacks in Somalia by unmanned US drones, this time it is the French who are playing a greater role in the Kenya campaign.
For starters, Gandi is seen as “France’s man.” He is one of the very few Somalis who speak fluent French and is married to a Frenchwoman. In the past nearly 10 years that he has lived in Nairobi, most of his costs have been paid for, a source told The EastAfrican, with “French money.”
France has assumed a very aggressive, and equally controversial role in Africa.
It was very forward in using its military to help rebels oust Laurent Gbagbo from power in Ivory Coast in April this year, after the strongman lost elections to rival current president Alassane Ouattara, but refused to hand over power, leading a resumption of civil war.
France also assumed a high profile in the Nato bombing of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s embattled regime, to aid the rebels of the National Transitional Council. Gaddafi was captured, and very quickly killed in a gruesome incident by rebels in his hometown and stronghold of Sirte, just over two weeks ago.
France now seems to have turned its attention to East Africa. President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French leader of the past 20 years to bury with the hatchet with Rwanda’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front.
The RPF blames French forces who were in Rwanda for collusion with Hutu extremists in the 1994 genocide, in which nearly one million Rwandans, most of them Tutsi, were killed.
French authorities, on the other hand, had long blamed the RPF, alleging they shot down the plane carrying then Rwanda president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi’s Cyprian Ntaryamira over Kigali in 1994, setting off the last deadly phase of the genocide.
Not only has Sarkozy visited Rwanda and extended an olive branch, but Kagame too went to Paris.
France is seen as more likely to be willing to soil its hands in Somalia than the Americans, who have preferred to use proxies and drones, since their invasion of Somalia in 1992 ended in disaster and humiliation.
This is particularly important for Kenya, as it will need someone who is willing to share the bill for what looks set to be a drawn-out and expensive campaign.