A sudden change of heart by Kenya towards Somalia has raised questions as to whether the US is using the East African state to fight the Al-Shabaab extremists, who are engaged in an intense onslaught against the struggling Somalia Transitional Federal Government.
For the first time since 2004, Kenya declared that it is ready to protect the TFG, vowing it will take “all available steps” to block the ascendancy of the Al-Shabaab to power.
This new attitude has added strength to the growing belief that Kenya is being pushed by the United States to get directly involved in Somalia as part of the war on terror, the way Ethiopia did in 2006 to oust the Union of Islamic Courts — a view that has been discounted by both Kenya and the US.
There are concerns that Kenya, apart from the risk of being a target of other militant groups, could find itself pitted against its own citizens of Somali origins.
The debate is whether Kenya is adopting this approach to protect its own interests or those of the US that has been keen to ensure that Somalia is not used as a training ground from which it is attacked. The US is known to use frontline states like Ethiopia and Pakistan to fight terrorists on its behalf.
However, both the government of Kenya and the US Embassy in Nairobi denied that Kenya is under any pressure. According to Minister for Foreign Affairs Moses Wetangula, Kenya has taken the latest position in consultation with the Inter-Governmental Authority and Development (Igad) countries.
Mr Wetangula maintained that the latest Al-Shabaab onslaught is threatening Kenyan security, affecting the country and regional economies and has the potential of creating an influx of Somali refugees into Kenya. The Dadaab camp that is meant to hold 50,000 is now home to 300,000 refugees.
“I think at certain levels, the insurgents in Somalia have taken the region’s soft approach as a weakness; it is high time they are told the region will not sit back and watch them harass the people and a legitimate government in Somalia,” said Mr Wetangula.
He, however, declined to reveal whether Kenya would resort to the military option, arguing that Kenya will operate within the Igad approach to the problem.
Igad foreign minsters met recently in Addis Ababa and decided to send a delegation to the UN to request the imposition of a no-fly zone on airports, airstrips and seaports that are being used by Al-Shabaab to ferry in mercenaries; and, to push for sanctions against Eritrea, which the regional countries accuse of supplying arms and ammunition to the extremists.
Equally, the US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, in an exclusive interview to The EastAfrican, denied that his country is putting pressure on Kenya, but admitted that the US is fully supporting the initiatives by Kenya and Igad.
“Whatever Kenya is doing, it’s on its own accord,” he said.
However, Kenya’s decision to support the TFG is seen in some quarters as an attempt to get into the good books of the US, given the earlier friction with the first Kibaki administration over corruption and the continuous issuance of travel advisories.
Analysts have often argued that some of the US criticisms against Kenya stemmed from President Kibaki’s decision to embrace countries from the East such as China, Iran and Turkey.
It is under such circumstances that those against Kenya’s direct involvement in Somalia’s internal affairs maintain that the US had all along intended to stir up anxiety and paranoia over terrorism in the region to gain more allies.
On the other hand, Kenya keeps on bending backwards to accommodate US interests but to no avail. One of the areas Kenya has defied the US interests is the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill, which the Kenya government finds difficult to enact due to stiff opposition from the Muslim population and civil society.
However, the first Kibaki administration was co-operative and arrested terrorist suspects wanted by the US, despite being accused of participating in the rendition of its citizens.
Now, the Kenya/US relation is once again in the limelight following President Barack Obama’s decision to visit Egypt, while avoiding Kenya on the grounds that the Coalition government is backtracking on reforms.
Still, Kenya’s decision is gaining support among the population.