In the wake of last week’s sacking of a Kenya Defense Forces base in Somalia by the al Shabaab terror group, the Kenyan government’s communications effort have once again come under a spotlight.
The country had just marked the first anniversary of a similar attack on another KDF camp in the Somali town of El Adde in which close to two hundred Kenyan soldiers were estimated to have been killed. Estimated because the government has never released an official tally of dead, injured and captured. Instead, after initially issuing a few statements offering a chronology of events and promising to answer queries later, it has subsequently maintained a studious silence.
This time, after news of the Kulbiyow attack broke on Friday, the KDF initially put out a statement stating categorically that the attack had been repulsed and that the camp had not been overrun. A second statement later in the day asserted that nine soldiers, including two officers, had lost their lives and another 15 had been injured. It also claimed that at least 70 al Shabaab militants had been killed.
The full Press Release on #KDFKulbiyow incident @amisomsomalia .#Kulbiyow #NgaoYaTaifa #TukoImaraAngani #OnTimeOnTarget #ThisIsKDF #WeAreKDF pic.twitter.com/Y2OOOCo9D4— Kenya Defence Forces (@kdfinfo) January 27, 2017
Follow up Operational Update Press Release on #KDFKulbiyow. Our Quick Reaction Force soldiers killed over 70 Al Shabaab terrorists.#WeAreKDF pic.twitter.com/nM69Pckpdp— Kenya Defence Forces (@kdfinfo) January 27, 2017
However, subsequent news reports, some of which claimed to have interviewed survivors of the attack, have raised serious doubts about the veracity of the KDF account. The al Shabaab, who run a pretty sophisticated propaganda machine, initially claimed to have killed over 50 soldiers and subsequently revised that figure upwards. Earlier this week, the group released gruesome pictures purportedly taken after the attack to back up their claims. The Standard newspaper, citing sources within the KDF, also reported that at least 68 Kenyan troops had died. A more detailed account in the Daily Nation also painted a grim picture of the camp being overrun and “pandemonium” as soldiers fled into the bush.
Following these revelations, the KDF and government communications appear to have retreated into silence. No further statements have been issued and, unlike El Adde, there has been no public comment from either their Commander-in-Chief, President Uhuru Kenyatta, or the Chief of Defence Forces, General Samson Mwathethe.
In both attacks, government communications have sought to minimize the scale of defeat specifically by either distorting or keeping mum about casualty figures, details of the incidents and the outcome of any investigations.
But does that matter? Not if you ask the pro-government online army on Twitter. Any attempt to seek clarification is met with accusations of propagandizing for the al Shabaab and having a morbid interest in death counts, as well as patently false claims that militaries across the world never reveal the true extent of their battlefield losses. It is not important to know how many died, so the argument goes, since even one is too many. Telling the truth about casualties, it is claimed, is demoralizing to our soldiers and gifts the terrorists a propaganda coup.
Yet the trouble that the government and the KDF go to to hide them itself demonstrates that the numbers do matter. The fact is, they are not being hidden from al Shabaab but from Kenyans and it is the official silences and mendacity, not the truth, that allow the terrorists’ propaganda to rule the airwaves unchallenged.
Similarly, the tendency to spin rather than provide accurate information means that KDF accounts of incidents lack credibility. For example, in the aftermath of the El Adde attack, Gen Mwathethe briefed the press on the battle and response. Many of the details he gave, including claims of three suicide trucks, each with the explosive force of the 1998 US Embassy truck bomb as well as "truckloads of suicide bombers", have proven to be either gross exaggerations or outright falsehoods. The same pattern can be seen in the statements issued on Kulbiyow.
Further, as an article by Nyambega Gisesa to be published this weekend in the Daily Nation states, "since Kenya first went to Somalia in October 2011, no single commander has ever been suspended or fired". At the end of his press briefing on El Adde, Gen Mwathethe promised to provide further details once a Board of Inquiry had completed its work. Nothing has been heard from him since.
Into the void created by the KDF's unwillingness to give forthright and credible information steps the al Shabaab propaganda machine, inundating the media and internet with impeccably timed press releases, interviews, caches of (often graphic) photos and slickly produced video footage of incidents. For a while now, it has been clear that Kenya's official communications on its actions in Somalia have been no match for al Shabaab's. And there is a very good reason for this. KDF and government communicators have been preoccupied with the wrong "enemy"- the Kenyan people.
The overriding objective of government communications ever since the debacle at Westgate has been to keep Kenyans from asking uncomfortable questions. Rather than protecting soldiers’ morale or debunking al Shabaab falsehoods as is sometimes claimed, government propaganda has been focused on protecting senior officials' and officers' backsides. Revealing the real extent of deaths risks rousing public anger, stoking uncomfortable questions and demands for people to held to account.
Yet, questions should and must be asked. Why did the KDF succumb to an attack that was a carbon copy of the El Adde incident, where it had suffered its biggest ever military loss? Why were lessons seemingly not learnt? What are the systemic failures that led to this and who should be held to account? As the Standard editorialized, “losing more than 250 soldiers in 54 weeks in two identical attacks speaks not to the consequence of going to war but the utter incompetence of the high command.”