Stay of border reopening pigeonholes Somalia-EAC dreams, fulfils Shabaab wish

Saturday July 08 2023

Photo illustration of boots stepping on a flag. PHOTO | LISA MUGUNDA | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Kenya on Wednesday announced that it would delay the planned phased reopening of its border with Somalia to address the recent wave of terror attacks and cross-border crime.

The reopening would have ended a 12-year close-off that began in 2011, when Kenya launched the "Operation Linda Nchi" intervention in Somalia to fight Al Shabaab militants who had staged several deadly attacks and kidnappings across the border.

Al Shabaab was undeterred and carried its terror campaign deeper inside Kenya, with a brazen and horrific attack on the upmarket Westgate mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2023. By the time its siege and slaughter at the mall ended, 68 people had been killed and more than 200 injured.

Read: 9 years later: Lessons from the Westgate terror attack

Few would have imagined that it would ever be worse. But it did. On April 2, 2015, Al Shabaab gunmen stormed the Garissa University College in Garissa, northeast Kenya, killing 148 people and injuring more than 80.

The attacks came a few weeks after Kenya announced it would build a Ksh3.5 billion ($24.8 million) security wall on part of its 700-kilometre-long border with Somalia. Panned by critics as just another scheme by the corrupt to steal money, and unpopular with Kenyan Somalis —who resented it because it would separate them from their kith and kin across the border — it got off to a shaky start.


The project, as the cynics alleged, was plagued by corruption. It was eventually downgraded to a robust fence, and some length of it was built. But it stalled, and most of the mesh and metal has since been vandalised and are now being put to "better use" on people's farms, homes and buildings.

Shortly after President William Ruto's newly elected government was sworn into office last September, it announced that the wall would be abandoned partly because it was an "archaic" idea.

Shabaab has now stepped up its campaign in northern Kenya. In June alone, it staged more than 15 terror attacks, killing more than 20 people, most of them security officers.

Read: Kenya police officers killed in suspected Shabaab blast

The Somali militants are following a familiar playbook. Clearly, they are taking advantage of the "transition instability," the first year when a new government will be settling, presenting attack opportunities as leadership in security agencies is shuffled. They did the same in 2013. The attack on Westgate came five months after President Uhuru Kenyatta, with William Ruto as his deputy, had taken office for the first time in April.

Today, however, the ground is richer for Al Shabaab than it has been in a long time. On May 26, Shabaab raided a base housing Ugandan African Union Transition Mission (Atmis) peacekeepers in Bula Marer, 130 kilometres southwest of Somalia capital, Mogadishu. The militants claimed to have killed 137, but Uganda President Yoweri Museveni later said 54 troops had died in the attack.

Shabaab seems to have taken advantage of the wobbly political situation in Uganda, with an anaemic economy, sharp political divisions, and a Museveni government with feet of clay as a long life-sapping transition to his long rule gets earnestly underway.

In Somalia, Uganda, which in 2007 became the daring pioneering Atmis (Amisom, as it was known until recently), has the largest contingent as the mission is being wound down. On June 30, Atmis completed the drawdown of 2,000 soldiers.

The plan is to completely withdraw its peacekeepers from Somalia by 2024, when the mission would have been there for 17 years. However, with al-Shaabab on the rampage with deadly fortnightly bombings, the plan faces significant pushback.

The election of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and his ascension to office in May 2022 — his second time on the job — brought a big anti-Shabaab wave, and the militants were backfoot. Mohamud has since squandered the opportunity and is seen as having relapsed into a typical Somali clanist and clientelist leader. Shabaab is on a roll again.

Read: Shabaab attack: Rebirth or fight for survival?

At the end of June, press and social media were awash with photos and reports of a remarkable Shabaab pass-out parade of what it called "5,000 new jihadists" who, it claimed, brought the strength of its fighting troops to 17,000 men.

Al Shabaab seems to have its eyes on the long-term prize. The exhaustion and errors of its adversaries have been a godsend.

Part of the Atmis drawdown is because the Europeans are fed up with paying the cost of it, and it is riddled with corruption. The European Union is the largest direct contributor to ATMIS and has paid in €2.4 billion ($2.6 billion) since 2007.

Europe is pouring ever more money to back Ukraine as it fights off the Russian invasion. Budgets are tight at home, and there is pressure to spend the resources to ward off what the European right-wing portrays as an invasion of its lands by hordes of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Europe probably also views its African "partners" as treacherous, most remaining neutral in the push against Russia and some trying to be in bed with both sides.

"These Africans start their wars but don't pay to end them or keep the peace. Yet they don't want to support us in defeating Russia. Let them drink vodka," some weary European might well be saying.

The knock-on effect could be far and wide. The East African Community had given the green light for Somalia to join the now seven-member bloc. Kenya's postponement of the Somalia border reopening effectively pigeonholes Mogadishu's EAC dreams. But it fulfils Shabaab's wish.

Be very afraid of Yasir Jiis, al-Shabaab leader and commander of its armed wing, the Jabha.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3