Somalia, Kenya in 2012: Regional war, National elections

By Parselelo Kantai in Nairobi

Posted on Wednesday, 7 December 2011 18:02

Kenya’s invasion of Somalia was not a divisive political topic from the outset, but elections loom in December 2012

The chaotic start of its invasion of Somalia in October makes it hard to see how the operation could benefit any of the candidates in contention for Kenya’s parliamentary and presidential elections due in December 2012. Politicians have pledged full support for what is Kenya’s first foreign intervention for four decades, and criticism from the usually feisty newspapers has been muted.

Yet none of the rival factions in the political class seem to have taken ownership of the war. State rhetoric aside, bureaucrats are puzzled about the civilian and political coordination of the war. “How do you shoot a moving target?” asked a Somali civic leader. It is a question that could haunt Kenya’s government. With civilians in Nairobi already seeing the effects of the terror tactics by Al Shabaab – or perhaps their local Kenyan allies – in a spate of grenade attacks, the consequences of this campaign could become an enduring domestic problem.

There were doubts about how far regional organisations cooperated with Kenya’s plan. Somalia’s President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed followed his initial and cautious welcome for the operation with a statement that his government objected to the presence of foreign forces in the country.

In Kenya, there is rising speculation that the campaign aims to create a buffer territory – the so-called Juba-land/Azania initiative – between its troubled northeastern province and the rest of southern Somalia. Although Kenya’s prime minister Raila Odinga (who had hinted of the coming war during an interview with The Africa Report), insisted that Kenya was not interested in claiming Somali territory, it looked significant that no government officials bothered to welcome Somalia’s prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali when he arrived in Nairobi to meet Odinga in late October.

Was the invasion motivated by the attacks on tourists in Lamu and the abductions of Spanish aid workers in Dadaab?

And so questions linger: Was the invasion motivated by the attacks on tourists in Lamu and the abductions of Spanish aid workers in Dadaab? Al Shabaab has consistently denied its involvement in the abductions. Or was it driven by a realisation that governments and international organisations were unwilling to assist Kenya in alleviating the refugee crisis at the Dadaab camp or to boost the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia.

Military experts predict that the campaign will tie up Kenyan troops for far longer than the government expects. At first, the defence ministry spoke of a brief campaign. “We expect that it will last three or four weeks,” Major Emmanuel Chirchir said. Later, Chief of General Staff General Julius Waweru Karangi said the campaign was likely to be a long one but that the Kenyan military was prepared to see it through. If the parallels with Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia in 2006 hold good, Kenyan troops may be in Somalia for some time.

Yet there are important differences. Unlike the Ethiopian case, where an invading force of more than 20,000 troops went into Somalia to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union regime in Mogadishu, Kenya is confronting the militants at perhaps their weakest. Al Shabaab is riven by internal discord, its leading faction opposed to Al Qaeda’s patronage. Due to its bungled handling of the famine, the group has lost some political legitimacy and foreign financing. Its fortunes could change if it were able to present itself as a fighter for national sovereignty and rally people behind it. Yet Al Shabaab’s unpopularity amongst Somalis – both in Somalia and in Kenya – makes that unlikely. lParselelo Kantai in Nairobi

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