Terror breeds solidarity: How the fight against Shabaab has energised East Africa

Monday February 25 2019

Today, unlike a year ago, there is a sense of some sort of peace settling over the EAC, the Horn, and the Central Africa swathe. The prospect of fortunes to be made is becoming more tempting.

It could actually be true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. One day, in the years ahead, when East Africa celebrates its coming of age, it will thank two most unlikely sources for helping it find its mojo – the Somali terror group Al Shabaab, and the deadly conflicts in the region.

So it was that Rwanda and Burundi formally joined the East African Community in June 2007, at the regional bloc’s 5th Heads of State Summit in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, bringing its membership to five.

Earlier in March, Uganda had become the first country to deploy its troops to Somalia as part of the African Union’s peacekeeping force in the country, Amisom. It was as politically and geopolitically significant a move as it was audacious.

The mission flew in blind, losing a transporter after it was shot down as it attempted to land at Aden Adde International Airport in Al Shabaab-controlled Mogadishu (the troops escaped with only shock and minor bruises), and then fought their way to take ground.

Until then, Uganda had kept its military adventures largely to East and Central Africa; southwards towards the border with Angola on the Democratic Republic of Congo side; and towards the north and Horn, in South Sudan.


In 2004, Rwanda had become the first country in East Africa to dip its toes in the Horn of Africa’s stormy peacekeeping waters, when it sent troops to Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

By the end of 2013, with Tanzania having joined the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco), as the Big Daddy in its “Intervention Brigade,” and Kenya’s punish-Shabaab invasion of 2011 shape-shifting in 2012, when it changed to an Amisom mission, all the five EAC states were somewhere in Africa trying to save a corner of it.

Burundi had become the second country to enter Somalia’s treacherous terrain, when it joined Uganda as part of Amisom in December 2007.

Though these military roles became controversial in some circles fairly early, they nevertheless had a salutary effect, first, because they were an antidote to East African parochialism.

Second, and most critically, in Al Shabaab, the East African peacekeepers faced a foe like no other – committed, brutal, brave and skilled fighters enjoying support among sections of Somalis who admired the militants for their effectiveness and lack of corruption, in the areas they controlled.

Shabaab fighters gave as good as they received.

When I was in Mogadishu after they had finally been kicked out of the district, I couldn’t find a single Amisom soldier who didn’t speak of the Shabaab without grudging respect, even if they hated them.

But there were two other critical things; the Ugandans spoke admiringly of the Burundi troops. Because Amisom troops use their own equipment, for which they are reimbursed by the UN (creating a side racket for the military chiefs and some big people in the troop-contributing countries) the Burundians arrived in Mogadishu without the heavy weaponry the Ugandans had. They had little beyond their AK-47s.

Big knocks

In the rubble of Mogadishu that Al Shabaab fighters had mastered like the back of their hands, that was inviting slaughter. They took big knocks, but the Burundians prevailed in the end.

Somalia did several other things for Burundi. It was the first time the country had undertaken any legal geopolitical enterprise outside out the valley that is Bujumbura. Until then, it had mostly dabbled in the ungoverned areas of eastern DR Congo near its border.

Though there is a salary apartheid, in which Amisom troops are paid less than other UN peacekeepers, for a country like Burundi the money was still about seven to 10 times the pay for soldiers back home.

Amisom duty, therefore, has produced a larger middle class in Burundi than any other activity in the strife-torn country over the past 20 years. Without Amisom dynamics, the coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2015 might well have succeeded.

Some commentators have argued that uncertainty about how his overthrow would affect the military’s prospects of continuing to milk the Amisom cash cow led to the bulk of the opposition to it.

Second, for the East African Community, one of the most enduring outcomes of the Somalia campaign — the blowback of the Shabaab attacks in Nairobi and Kampala, and its threats to Burundi — have been a strong camaraderie among the soldiers, and an extensive alliance among East Africa’s counterterrorism securocrats. These see a unified East African security architecture as critical to defeating the Shabaab.

For almost 10 years, doing something with Amisom – buying arms from rogue elements in it and on-selling to Al Shabaab; smuggling charcoal or sugar; supplying the troops; working as Kiswahili translators – was the biggest gig in a Mogadishu disrupted by years of war. To get a piece of it, you needed to speak Kiswahili, which is the language of the Amisom troops, especially the Burundians who don’t speak English.

Perhaps it is here that Amisom, years after it leaves Somalia, will have left an indelible mark. Together with the effect of returning Somali refugees from many years in camps in Kenya, and the disproportionate influence of Kenyan Somalis on Somalia, the Amisom has effectively “Swahilinised” the country, and probably changed its character forever.

As we shall explore in the final part of the series, this has far-reaching consequences for the future shape of the EAC, especially how Somalia and Ethiopia engage with the EAC zone in the near future; and the tone it has given to the growing role of “Somali capital” in East Africa.

Guns, blood and gore

But guns, blood and gore were not content to have their say in the region out of Somalia only. In December 2013, barely two years as a new nation and eight years after the January 9, 2005 peace accord in Nairobi signed by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the government of Sudan, ending a nearly three-decades-long civil war, Juba went up in flames again.

A conflict perhaps more savage than the civil war against Khartoum broke out after President Salva Kiir fell out with his then deputy Riek Machar. To date, the war has killed nearly 400,000 people, internally displaced close to three million, and sent a similar number fleeing as refugees into neighbouring countries. The stories of rape and brutal killings are from a hell no one would wish on their enemies.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, an old ally of the SPLM in its war against Khartoum — a man who sees South Sudan as an important buffer against extremist jihadist forces from the north, and an important flank in the war against anti-Kampala rebel forces in eastern DRC, including remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army — rushed the Uganda People’s Defence Forces to save Kiir’s government from being overrun.

Two other EAC countries got involved, but on different sides. Rwanda sent a significant contingent to join the UN Mission in South Sudan (Unmiss), established to protect civilians during the country’s descent into madness. Kenya too sent both troops and police to do Unmiss duty.

Kenya, however, started withdrawing from the mission, stewing at what it considered humiliation by the UN, after an inquiry found that Unmiss failed to respond to an attack in July 2016 on the Terrain Hotel compound, on the outskirts of Juba. Journalists were killed and aid workers gang-raped, as pro-regime troops ran wild. The UN sacked Kenyan commander Lt-Gen Johnson Ondieki.

This was the first time EAC countries were doing peacekeeping in another EAC state. For Rwanda, this allowed it to consolidate its “peacekeeper” image, cementing its position as Africa’s, and also one of the world’s, largest contributors to UN peacekeeping.

Kenya’s tantrum was meat for China, which moved in and quickly picked up the pieces Nairobi had thrown away, allowing it to shadow the Blue Helmets with its new military base in Djibouti.

But blink and you miss it. While Kenya stormed out of Unmiss because of wounded national pride, in reality it might also have been because of more hardnosed realpolitik considerations.

Not able to sell oil, with inflation shooting up to over 70 per cent in 2016, the South Sudan pound crashing through the floor, and an empty Treasury, Juba couldn’t pay civil servants or troops, whom it needed to keep loyal. There were only a few places in South Sudan that had dollars stashed away: Kenyan banks, especially KCB, and Equity Bank.

Because South Sudan had made it impossible for foreign banks to repatriate their earnings in foreign exchange, the flood of Kenyan companies into South Sudan after 2005 kept their dollar earnings in Kenyan banks there. Kenyan banks, which had quickly become the leading commercial lenders, too, piled up forex in their vaults.

Begging bowl

Facing ruin, the Kiir government in Juba turned with a begging bowl in one hand, and a gun in the other, to the Kenyan banks. For months, Kenyan banks became South Sudan’s unofficial central bank.

The exact details of what negotiations went on behind the scenes remain unknown. There is a view that Nairobi got involved as a guarantor to the Kenyan banks that their money would be paid, perhaps because it found some comfort in the fact that South Sudan had joined the EAC in April 2016 as its sixth member, giving it an additional lever for ensuring Juba’s future compliance.

Additionally, in the drawn-out and frustrating South Sudan peace negotiations between Kiir and Machar, there was a feeling that the process was being hobbled by rivalries between Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan to have their positions and interests take precedence. Kenyan money seems to have bought Nairobi an edge in Juba. Before long, the South Sudan belligerents were trooping to State House Nairobi to pay homage to President Uhuru Kenyatta and for photo ops.

Matters were helped by other opportune developments outside the EAC. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who had taken a hostile position against Machar, and whose government was keeping him under house arrest, was ousted in February 2018, letting the rebel leader off the leash.

But Machar couldn’t profit, because in Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir’s position was weakening as economic problems mounted, and protests started to grow.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s ascent to power in April 2018 rattled his cage further. Dr Abiy’s dramatic peace overtures to long-term Addis Ababa foe, Isaias Afeworki’s Eritrea, and the quick restoration of diplomatic and business relations between the two economies pried an important ally in the Horn out of Bashir’s corner, leaving him more vulnerable.

Abiy also dialled down the ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front’s strident national security posture, thus taking a foot off the political pedal in South Sudan, allowing an EAC Kampala-Nairobi axis-driven sense of realism to return to the Juba peace talks.

Today, unlike a year ago, there is a sense of some sort of peace settling over the whole of the EAC, the Horn, and the Central Africa swathe. The prospect of fortunes to be made is becoming more tempting.

If Abiy were to put out the fires in Ethiopia, and persisted in political and economic reforms, it will add a whopping 110 million people who live in relatively free political and economic conditions to the East African region.

The “Eastern Africa region” (defined by the UN as 20 nations all the way from Djibouti, South Sudan and Mozambique, to Zambia) is the biggest region by population in Africa, currently at 457 million people, compared with West Africa at 402 million, while Middle Africa, covered by DRC and Cameroon, has 178 million people. Southern Africa is declining.

The region is in the middle of a baby boom of citizens born after 2000, who do not know a life without fast speed Internet, and who are entering their adulthood in 2019.

The future of this potentially lucrative region is being determined both by itself, but also by what China does in the region, the growing superpower rivalry up the road in the Horn, the outcomes of the Abiy reforms in Ethiopia, and how Kenyan money behaves.

Next week, in the last part of the series, we look at these and other factors shaping this part of Africa.

Part 1 - Invisible hand that drives East Africa integration: As the East African Community prepares to mark the 20th year since its revival, in the series, we assess the things that hold the bloc together that could also break it

Part 2 - War drums in EAC, or a game of chess?: We look at whether Rwanda and Uganda, or Burundi and Rwanda could go to war; how Uganda’s oil pipeline through Tanzania is about everything else but oil...

Part 4 - The East African Century is already upon us: We look at the factors shaping this part of Africa.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of and explainer Twitter@cobbo3