How war boosts Kenya’s regional, global clout

Sunday November 20 2011

Kenyan soldiers at Liboi. Though Kenya is the EAC’s leading economy, it was largely viewed as a wimpish nation, with an untested military led by pampered generals growing potbellied in luxury and never having to worry about firing a shot in anger. All that has changed in weeks. FILE| The East African

Kenya’s war, and Burundi and Uganda’s aggressive peacekeeping in Somalia, are having a far-reaching and unintended impact inside the East African Community countries.

While the three EAC countries all entered troubled Somalia to save it, there are signs that it is Somalia that is changing the way these countries do business at home.

The effect of the Somalia war, especially the activities of Al Shabaab, are even being felt in countries like Tanzania — which is not involved either as a peacekeeper or fighting force in Somalia — through the number of its young people being recruited into the militant group’s regional network. Last week, Home Affairs Minister Shamsi Vuai Nadodha announced that 10 Tanzanians had been arrested in Mogadishu fighting alongside the Shabaab.

While Kenya’s entry into the Somalia fray has its critics, it has kicked off a wave of nationalist sabre-rattling on the Internet. Not surprising, because though Kenya is the EAC’s leading economy, it was largely viewed as a wimpish nation, with an untested military led by pampered generals growing potbellied in luxury and never having to worry about firing a shot in anger.

Indeed, in a leaked US diplomatic cable published on the whistleblower website Wikileaks, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is reported by US diplomats in Kampala to have pooh-poohed the Kenya army’s mettle and ability to do anything about Somali insurgents. Museveni is reported as describing the Kenyan military as a “career army” and wondering about their ability to take on bush fighters. “Is Kenya used to fighting like this [bush and guerrilla warfare]? Would Kenya be able to provide logistical support to its Somali allies?” Museveni reportedly wondered.

Because of that view, which similar leaked US cables reveal are shared by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the meeting in Nairobi last week between President Mwai Kibaki, Museveni and Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed would have been unthinkable just two months ago. When it came to heavy lifting on Somalia, it was considered that Kenya had nothing useful to contribute.


In a few weeks, all that has changed.

Writing in Uganda’s main independent daily, the Daily Monitor (a sister publication of The EastAfrican), Member of Parliament Capt Michael Mukula noted, “Kenya has displayed that it is not a mere careerist. Its military hardware display inside Somalia has certainly raised eyebrows among regional military strategists.”

War brings with it death and destruction, but its ability to boost a country’s diplomatic standing has been displayed many times in the region.
Burundi, war-wracked, poor, and obscure, muscled up internationally when it became the only other country to send peacekeeping troops to joins the Ugandans in Amisom, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

Today Burundi, which used to be relegated to the back of the room, gets a front seat at international meetings on Somalia and peacekeeping in Africa.

By the time Burundi arrived at the table, equally tiny Rwanda had been punching above its weight for years, particularly after its lead role in ousting Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, and the sway it held over its neighbour, which is 27 times its size, as an imperial overlord of sorts for some years after that.

Rwanda had entered Congo to pursue the forces that carried out the 1994 genocide in the country, in which nearly one million people were killed. They had regrouped inside Congo, from where they were launching periodic attacks on Rwanda.

It was a campaign that ended in controversy, with Rwandan forces being accused of human-rights abuses and plunder. Rwanda, the saying goes, bit off and chewed up Congo, but could not quite swallow it.

Some observers think that Burundi — and possibly Uganda — got their appetite for peacekeeping from watching how Rwanda’s peacekeeping role in Sudan’s western Darfur region reversed its fortunes.

Rwanda sent the first main body of troops for the UN peacekeeping force in Sudan, UNMIS, in 2005. A grateful international community immediately became reluctant to criticise Rwanda’s Congo role. Before long, when Rwanda sneezed on Sudan peacekeeping, everyone caught a cold.

This was demonstrated dramatically last year, when a draft UN human-rights report accusing Rwanda of massacring civilians in Congo in the late 1990s was leaked. The report even hinted that Rwanda troops might have committed “genocide.”

Kigali hit the roof, and threatened to withdraw its forces from the Darfur peacekeeping mission. Rwanda’s argument was that if the UN believed its troops had committed genocide, then they were unworthy of being in a peace mission to prevent genocide.

A withdrawal would have effectively collapsed the mission. The UN panicked. In a first, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon interrupted a European visit, hopped on a plane, and headed to Kigali to press the flesh with President Paul Kagame and massage wounded feelings.

The UN said the report was a work in progress, and hadn’t been reviewed.

In the end, its release was delayed, and a “balanced” version was what eventually saw the light of day and made it into the official record.

Up to that point, it was only countries like the US or China that had the clout to get that kind of result.

As Kenya savours the newfound external attention and respect as a result of the war, it has to contend with several domestic challenges.

Because, unlike Uganda and Burundi, it shares a border with Somalia, its security measures to foil possible Al Shabaab suicide bombers have been more extensive.

Unusually, over the past three weeks, worshippers arriving for Sunday prayers found that they had to undergo security checks before entering the Lord’s house.

Most of the schools in Nairobi where the elite take their children have introduced detectors, and guards are peeking under cars with mirrors.

There is virtually no hospital, mall, or office building in Nairobi that you can enter without being frisked, scanned, or having your car checked.
However, these are petty changes that will not change society much.

Meanwhile, in the past few weeks Kenyans have seen more photographs of soldiers and weaponry, and heard army chiefs and spokesman speak, than they have for all of the past 15 years — including the period of post-election violence in 2008.

A national aversion to a high profile role for the military could just disappear in the process.

For Uganda, Somalia has been a particular blessing. Like Rwanda’s, the Uganda army, the UPDF, had its image battered by its adventures in DR Congo, where it was eventually condemned as a pillaging and murderous force.

A senior military officer in Uganda told The EastAfrican, “Somalia was a blessing. It has allowed our army to again be seen as heroic at home, and respected abroad”.

Nothing could be more different than the way the Uganda soldiers who died in Congo, and those who die in Somalia, are treated. Most of the DRC casualties were buried in the jungles there. The Somalia casualties are returned home and given a decent burial.

Because the DRC campaign eventually became a personalised war, and attracted too many rogue officers out to cut down forests for timber or take over a diamond or gold mine, there was a massive attack on the formal structures of the UPDF and the military fell into disarray.

The Amisom mission, because it involves working with AU institutions, Nato, the US, and co-ordinating with Burundi, forced Uganda to appoint its better officers and to manage the army professionally. Somalia, then, saved the UPDF from becoming a bandit force.

An Amisom official told The EastAfrican, “In the fullness of time, Somalia could enable regional integration in ways that will surprise us.”
That moment might be here already. Unlike Rwanda, which had closer links to the older EAC countries (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda), Burundi had been more properly a Central African country that East Africa paid little attention to.

For a long time, the Somalia question was an issue for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad), comprising Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. Burundi’s role in Amisom drew it close into an IGAD, and lately EAC, project and did a lot to turn it into an East African country.

The involvement of EAC countries in war or peacekeeping in Sudan and Somalia, has also coloured their outlook toward the expansion of the Community.

In June, the Republic of Sudan (Khartoum) surprised the region when it formally applied to join the EAC, ahead of the new nation of South Sudan, which was considered a more “natural” and “logical” future candidate.

Khartoum’s bid received a cold reception from Uganda, which has had issues with the Sudan government, including its long-time support for the murderous Lord’s Resistance Army rebels. Tanzania also reportedly baulked.

Kenya and Rwanda were more open to the idea, and suggested that due diligence be done by the EAC to establish whether the Republic of Sudan met the standard for membership.

Empathetic Kagame

Of the EAC presidents, the one who has most amplified the need to respond to Khartoum’s courtship objectively, is Kagame.

That is no accident, because Kagame has a peacekeeping force in Darfur, and officers in Khartoum and South Sudan. He is therefore more likely to be empathetic to Khartoum, because a relationship between Sudan and the EAC that eventually leads to a reduction of conflict, would also partly be a success for the Rwanda peace mission.

It is early days, and there are still many twists and turns to come in the Somalia conflict. For one, Kenya government officials have been warning of anti-Somali sentiment, arguing that a distinction needs to be made between Kenyan-Somali and Somalia-Somalis — the latter remain loyal, and many are playing a prominent role in the Kenya campaign.

They are right to be concerned, because the Shabaab have sought to rally their base by saying Somalia has been invaded by a “coalition of Christian armies.”

The response that can be gleaned from pronouncements by public officials and the media is quite striking. It would seem as if in a bid not to give Al Shabaab ammunition or to “endanger the troops,” anti-Muslim rhetoric, especially from Kenyan fundamentalist Christian groups, has gone silent.

How long it will last, will soon be clear. Support for the Kenyan action in Somalia is shrill, and the Kenyan blogosphere and social media voices are waxing patriotic.

A posting by a Christine Mutimura on the social media Twitter on Operation Linda Nchi (Operation Protect the Homeland) as Kenya is calling it, summed it up well: “Kenya’s invasion of Somalia to hunt down Al Shabaab is  being viewed as a Big Gamble. I say Operation Linda Nchi is a Worthy Gamble.”