Military camp attack fuels Somalia pullout talk

Saturday January 23 2016

Kenya was plunged into mourning yet again by another attack from the Somalia-based Al Shabaab terrorist group.

This time, however, the dead and injured were not civilians at a poorly policed shopping mall, university campus or remote township but dozens of soldiers in a military camp in Somalia, near the Kenyan border.

READ: How Al-Shabaab raided Kenyan military camp - VIDEO

Authorities remained tight-lipped on the number of Kenya Defence Forces soldiers killed in the deadly dawn attack by the Islamists at the military camp in El Adde last Friday.

But it was clear that the numbers were significant enough to prompt a sombre statement from President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Commander-in-Chief of the KDF, hailing the soldiers who died for their country and promising revenge.

READ: Kenya vows to avenge fallen soldiers, war on terror to continue


The attack dominated the Kenyan media for the rest of the week, with constant updates on the injured survivors and recovered bodies being flown home.

While the country united in mourning the slain soldiers, there was also plenty of anguish and frustration over the lack of accurate information from the government.

The only numbers on the fatalities were those being put out by the Al Shabaab propaganda machine, suggesting over 100 soldiers killed and a dozen or so captured.

The Ministry of Defence and the Department of Defence (DoD), the KDF headquarters, were unable to effectively counter the terrorists’ propaganda — especially in a situation where they could only account for the bodies recovered and survivors who were flown home, leaving a large number of soldiers unaccounted for.

Bland statements from the Cabinet Secretary for Defence Raychelle Omamo and Chief of Defence Forces General Samson Mwathethe revealed very little — other than that the military had carried out retaliatory bombing raids on Al Shabaab positions and sent in a special force to secure the camp that had been overrun by the terrorists and that it was undertaking an intensive search-and-rescue operation.

That did little to pacify the families complaining through the media that they had been kept in the dark over the fate of their loved ones.

Eyebrows were also raised over the fact that, in the wake of the deadly attack, President Kenyatta did not interrupt his extended campaign and working holiday at the Coast.

Inept communications

Beset by queries over inept communications, the military responded with its own belated account of what happened at El Adde, “leaking” a tale of outnumbered and outgunned Kenyan soldiers heroically resisting a massed wave of thousands of Al Shabaab attackers for more than 10 hours until reinforcements were called in.

The tale, which read like a movie script, did not tally with any other known account and remained silent on the fatalities. It was nevertheless lapped up by a section of the media hungry for what they were assured was an exclusive but was actually widely shared information.

While the country initially came together in mourning the soldiers who fell in battle — complete with the usual Kenyan media and civil society fixation with the unifying hashtags and graphics — it was not long before some tough questions started being asked — and another avenue was opened for bashing the government.

In the first few hours following the attack, opposition leader Raila Odinga issued a statement expressing solidarity with the fallen soldiers and support for continuation of tough security operations against Al Shabaab. The statement seemed to echo the position taken by the president.

By Thursday, however, opposition Members of Parliament had taken off the gloves, demanding the sacking of Ms Omamo and withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia.

They threatened to move an impeachment motion against the defence minister if President Kenyatta did not sack her, saying she was not inspiring the soldiers at a time of war and was generally unsuitable for such a sensitive docket.

However, Mr Odinga’s party later had a rethink about the anti-Omamo remarks. ODM chairman John Mbadi told the media that these were individual views rather than that of the party.

The matter had been discussed extensively, with Mr Odinga’s key strategists, concerned that the remarks could boomerang if seen as trying to gain political capital from a national tragedy.

The remarks also would not have sat well at a time when Mr Odinga and his co-principals in the Cord alliance, Kalonzo Musyoka and Moses Wetang’ula, were joining President Kenyatta in a show of national unity.

The MPs also said that the Kenyan military mission that is aimed at wiping out Al Shabaab inside its Somalia strongholds had failed, demanding that the troops be brought home.

The legislators added that they were speaking on behalf of ODM, Mr Odinga’s majority outfit within the coalition.

But a few days earlier, when mourning the soldiers, Mr Odinga had not made any such demands. Soon after he made his statement, Mr Odinga was asked by this writer whether he had moderated his earlier position from last year that Kenya should pull out of Somalia.

He explained that he was not for hasty and premature withdrawal but the establishment of a clear time frame and exit strategy by which Kenyan forces should pull out and hand over their positions to the Somali National Army once it had the capacity to contain the terrorist group.

Mr Odinga also dwelt on the contradictions on display since he was the prime minister and a key supporter of Operation Linda Nchi when the military incursion into Somalia was launched in 2011.

He conceded that, indeed, he backed the operation, but explained that it was never meant to end up in a permanent presence in Somalia.

The opposition chief added that the mission had morphed from the imperative then to secure the Kenyan border against infiltration from Somalia to the Kenyan military formally re-hatting to become part of the African Union force, Amisom, which props up the shaky Somali federal government.

Whatever the case, the El Adde attack has reignited debate on whether Kenyan forces should pull out of the Horn of Africa country.

President Kenyatta remains emphatic that Kenya cannot retreat and surrender, but a growing body of opinion evident in various conversations indicates growing fatigue with a military adventure that has not succeeded in its primary objective of neutralising Al Shabaab.

Indeed, Kenya has been hit by bigger and more serious attacks since KDF moved into neighbouring Somalia.

Al Shabaab now claims it targets Kenya in retaliation for the KDF incursion but there is little evidence that the attacks would cease if the troops were withdrawn.

In any case, Al Shabaab claims allegiance to a wider terrorist network — including Al Qaeda and ISIS, with a global agenda of creation of an Islamic caliphate — that supersedes regional grievances.

The issue of foreign troops in Somalia also extends beyond Kenya. Amisom is an AU mission that also has strong backing from the United Nations as well as individual countries from across the developed world.

Troops are drawn from Kenya and fellow East African Community countries Uganda and Burundi, as well as neighbouring Djibouti and Ethiopia.

A Kenyan withdrawal would, therefore, not be a purely local decision as it would call for close consultation across the region and beyond to ensure that a security vacuum is not created that Al Shabaab can exploit.

For the moment, a government communications machinery hobbled by infighting and unclear lines of command will be hard pressed to offer cogent responses if the opposition moves strongly to exploit growing public clamour for the withdrawal of the military from Somalia.

[email protected], @MachariaGaitho