Two weeks ago, while addressing a Mini-Summit on Somalia that was held at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, President Mwai Kibaki called on the international community to expand its support for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which was deployed in Mogadishu in 2007 under a UN mandate to help support the Somali peace process and protect the institutions that the process had generated. However, while thanking “Uganda and Burundi for their continued unwavering commitment in providing the AMISOM troops”,” the President did not explain why Kenya itself has not contributed troops to the mission.
The Kenyan reluctance can be partly explained by the fear that a peaceful, confident and secure Somalia may once more stoke irredentist ambitions among the Kenya’s Somali population as it did in the years immediately before and following independence, leading to the “Shifta War” of 1963-67. However, this fear ignores the fact that in the last 20 years, as Somalia dissolved into chaos, much has been done on the Kenyan side of the border to integrate the Somali population into the rest of the country. The harsh policy of emergency rule by decree was lifted in 1992 and, in a 2005 report, Dr. Ken Menkhaus, Associate Professor of political science at Davidson College and a former special advisor to the U.N. operation in Somalia, noted that “the introduction of competitive elections for Parliament has had the positive effect of opening up political space for debate in the region, and of generating legislative representatives seeking to serve the interests of their home constituencies.” Today, ethnic Somalis hold high positions in the Kenyan political and business landscape. Compare that with the situation 30 years prior, when a British commission of inquiry reported that 87 per cent ot the population in what was then known as the Northern Frontier District, favoured unification with Somalia and subsequently boycotted the 1963 elections in favour of armed insurrection.
While undoubtedly much more remains to be done to extend the benefits of Kenyan citizenship, including government services such as registration, security and infrastructure, as well as investment and economic opportunities to the North Eastern Province, it is clear that the fear of irredentism is a historical relic that should not stand in the way of stabilizing Somalia.
The fact is Kenya has been an instrumental actor in the search for peace in the Horn of Africa. Its facilitation enabled rival Somali groups to negotiate and develop the transitional structures at several conferences hosted in Kenyan towns. In fact, the Transitional Federal Government and Parliament were formed in Nairobi and from there, set out to establish a governmental presence first in Baidoa and then in Mogadishu. Kenya’s involvement was motivated as much by self interest, given the price it was paying for the anarchy, as by good neighbourliness.
Over the past year, the support of AMISOM has been critical in entrenching this peace process. With it, the TFG has achieved significant success in forcing the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab extremists out of Mogadishu, and establishing a measure of relative security in the Somali capital. The confidence this has engendered in the population is evidenced by the fact that many Somalis displaced by the famine ravaging the country are opting to flee to the relative safety of the sea-side city, where international agencies have been providing humanitarian aid. This undoubtedly relieves the pressures that would otherwise be brought to bear on the already overcrowded refugee camps in Daadab in Kenya. In fact, as many refugees were heading north to the capital daily, as were headed south to Daadab, and while the flow into Kenya has somewhat diminished, that into Mogadishu continues unabated.
Further, the relative peace has created room for further negotiations among Somali factions with a view to the eventual conclusion of the transition and the return of permanent government. In his speech to the UN, President Kibaki alluded to the conference held a month ago in Mogadishu, during which a detailed Roadmap to achieving this, complete with benchmarks and timelines, was adopted. It is undeniable that these achievements in the security, humanitarian and political spheres will, if entrenched and expanded, have a lasting beneficial effect on the situation along the Kenyan border.
However, as demonstrated by last week’s horrific suicide bombing in Mogadishu, this is easier said than done. As President Kibaki noted, AMISOM urgently needs to be reinforced so that the city can be secured and the war taken to the extremists in the southern areas, where the famine has hit hardest and where criminal gangs benefit from the al Shabaab’s protection. The AU’s Peace and Security Council has already authorised the deployment of up to 20,000 AMISOM troops, which is what the field commanders say is necessary to secure the whole country. Further, the UN Security Council has committed to review the AU request for expanded support but pegged it to an increase in troops to the already authorised 12000, up from the current 9,000 now in Mogadishu.
It is up to African countries to make up the numbers. While encouraging noises have been heard from Sierra Leone and Djibouti with regards to deployments (the former have promised a battalion by April next year while the latter have also declared their intentions to send troops), nothing in this regard has been heard from the Kenyans. Yet with one of the more advanced and better equipped militaries in the region and the strongest economy to boot, Kenya would be a valuable addition to AMISOM.
The fact is, whether it likes it or not, the Kenyan military is likely to be increasingly drawn into a confrontation with the extremists on its North-Eastern frontier. The question is whether this will take the form of a unilateral, protracted, low-level conflict on the border or whether Kenya will join the AU forces in Mogadishu working for a holistic solution. In the final analysis, a strong Somali state, able to enforce its writ across the whole of the country’s territory, would be a boon to the fight against piracy, terrorism and radicalisation within the region as well as a reliable partner in combating cross-border crime.
In conclusion, just as the fight against piracy cannot be resolved by policing the high seas, so the pacification of the North Eastern border is not to be achieved through creation of buffer entities along the border or declarations of war against small gangs of bandits intent on kidnapping elderly, disabled pensioners in speedboats. The real and lasting solution lies in the pacification of Somalia through support for the peace and reconciliation process and the reconstitution of an effective, representative and democratic administration in Mogadishu. The participation of Kenya in this endeavour, utilising its considerable diplomatic, economic and, yes, military muscle, will not only expedite this outcome, but also ensure that its economic interests as well as the safety of its tourists are secured in the long term.