Shock and awe in Somalia? Sorry, it isn’t a board game

Sunday October 30 2011

This past week saw two explosions in Nairobi — explained as possibly retaliatory grenade attacks by Al Shabaab for the Kenya’s military offensive inside Somalia. Kenyans seem largely perplexed by this offensive — Kenya’s first since Independence.

Kenyans are justifiably worried too — artists, journalists and writers associated with Concerned Kenyans Writers have already issued a statement essentially saying that this is not being done in our name.

Diplomatic missions have issued upgraded security advisories to their citizens resident in Kenya. And, publicly, are taking a naive sort of wait-and-see position, professing lack of prior knowledge as to what Kenya had clearly been planning for a while.

The recent kidnappings attributed to Al Shabaab, based on changing official statements, were clearly just an excuse to legitimise the offensive.

Al Shabaab has itself denied responsibility for the kidnappings — somewhat curiously, given its propensity for publicity. And it has, naturally, promised retaliation.

Kenya’s security apparatus seems determined to trudge on. Its attitude is that all “irrelevant” security issues — the minor matter of human-rights violations committed by Kenyan security services in an almost routine manner, for example — can be disregarded as so much buzzing around of flies to be swatted away.


So Kenyans can protest the offensive as much as we want — it will not matter.
What has always mattered more is the position of Kenya’s financiers and trainers in security matters — notably the UK and the US. The latter, of course, has professed mild surprise — both in Kenya and Washington.

The line is consistent. It is also completely unbelievable.

Both the UK and the US are too enmeshed with Kenya’s security apparatus to not have actually been part of this latest adventure — let alone to not have known about it in advance.

France is acting as the overt proxy for everybody else in this — it was, after all, a French citizen who died following her alleged abduction.

So the question is what, exactly, is going on in the minds of Kenya and its external actors? What are they hoping to achieve? And are they likely to?

Clearly the decision that Kenya’s security apparatus has made — with its external partners, including the rest of our own region — is that the time has come for “decisive” action — decisive meaning going beyond the obvious insufficiencies of the African Union Mission in Somalia to even maintain the peace, let alone actually stabilise the situation enough for the TFG to finally govern.

Decisive also apparently means securing the south — particularly the port of Kismayu — and then establishing a “buffer zone” between Kenya and Somalia. Dispersing Al Shabaab literally in its wake — as well as up to the north where Amisom, in support of the motley troops of the TFG, can take over.

The problem is, of course, that we do not live in a board game. Unconventional militia groups do not play by the rules. Nothing in war is as linear as it may seem. Moves made doesn’t always provoke the logical counter-move and, inevitably, has other, unintended effects.

Kenya’s own General Lazarus Sumbweiyo has drawn our attention to this, expressing his concern that other strategies could still have been deployed to perhaps better effect. And if we civilians are considered naive about security matters, surely he is not.

L. Muthoni Wanyeki is doing her graduate studies at Sciences Po in Paris