On the enemy side? Riddle of missing KDF-trained youth

Young Somali youths with AK 47 machine guns shortly after receiving them from Kenya Defense Forces at the Kenya-Somalia border town of Burahache in 2010. The youths, who were trained by the Kenyan military, were taken to Somalia to fight Al Shabaab. [Photo: George Mulala/standard]

Nairobi, Kenya - As the government moves ahead with an expensive project to build a controversial security fence on sections of Kenya’s 700 km border with Somalia to keep out terrorists, it has a bigger headache.

Thousands of youths recruited six years ago to fight alongside Somali troops are now battle- hardened men in the early 30s. Quite a number have returned home bitter after the government failed to pay the Sh 255,000 ($3000) per month it promised them when they accepted the offer in 2009.

It is not clear how the figure was arrived at, but for youths who had never imagined earning six-figure salaries, the chance to take home the monthly equivalent of the salary  of the Inspector General of the National Police Service, minus the benefits, proved too good to resist.

With the total number of youths recruited estimated at 4,000, this would have amounted to Sh1 billion per month (Sh12 billion a year) in 2009 when the process started.

The generous figure is just zeroes shy of what a Major-General in the Kenya Defence Forces earns monthly. Kenyan soldiers attached to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) were being paid Sh84,296 ($1,028) as allowances on top of their salaries in 2012, when the Kenyan youths were fighting in Somalia.

Most of the youths were Somalis from Garissa, Wajir, Mandera and Isiolo. They were recruited when Yusuf Haji was Defence Minister and MP for Ijara, under the Grand Coalition Government of President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Haji is now the Garissa Senator.

Up to 148 people, a majority of them students, were massacred at the Garissa University College two weeks ago by a Kenyan cell of Al-Shabaab.

The youths who went missing, were trained at a military base at Archer’s Post in Samburu, and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) training facility at Manyani in Taita-Taveta between 2009 and 2011, to fight alongside former Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops after they were promised lucrative terms. Others were trained in Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

They were also promised insurance running into millions of shillings for them and their families, prime plots in Ras Kamboni and Kismayu and permanent resettlement as part of the deal to fight rising threats from the Islamic Courts Union and its allies led by Al Shaabab.

Because of the secretive nature of the Government’s defence spending, it is close to impossible to ascertain if any funds were set aside for the purpose, but it is clear that very little, if any, trickled down to the youths, who quickly became frustrated, bitter and vengeful.

The Standard has interviewed some of the fighters who have since returned to Northern Kenya and are still angry about the Government’s unfulfilled promise.

The Government is unable to trace the former youths and a significant number remain in Somalia, with some believed to have joined Al-Shabaab and returned home to form “sleeper cells” and await orders to carry out terror attacks.

In April 2009, donors at a UN-sponsored conference pledged over $250 million to improve security in Somalia. The funds were for Amisom and the Somalia police.

The mission of the Kenyan youths was to secure Lower Juba and Gedo regions where Kenya was keen to establish the state of Jubaland as a buffer zone between anarchic Somalia and Kenya to check the activities of Al-Shabaab.

Somalia was then under President Sheikh Sharif, while Lower Juba, where KDF is currently based, was under Ras Kamboni Brigade warlord Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a former member of the Al-Shabaab, who had in 2007 defected in protest citing brutality of the terror group.

Earn millions

Last week, The Standard visited Laresoro and interviewed some of the youth from Isiolo who were trained there. At least ten of them have since returned after escaping from their camps in Gedo and Lower Juba citing betrayal by the Somalia and Kenyan governments over what they called “terms of service not honoured”.

The Standard talked to three men from the Somali clans of Garre and Isahak, and the Borana Sakuye clan whose parents fled to Somalia in 1967 following the Shifta insurgency in the colonial Northern Frontier District.

The man from the Garre clan with roots in El Wak, Mandera on the border with Somalia was a small scale textile dealer and said he was enlisted to join the ‘Somalia police’ in 2009 by the Kenyan military based at a camp in Isiolo.

‘’I was selling clothes with a stock of about Sh30,000. I had never handled a gun before, but my army friend told me the job would earn me millions in a year and I accepted,’’ said the 34-year-old man.

The Isahak man, now about 40 years old, was recruited in similar fashion, but had security experience having been a former General Service Unit officer.

The third man from Garba-Tula said he qualified to be enlisted despite being a Borana, because he speaks fluent Somali.

‘’My parents were refugees in Somalia having fled the Shifta war. I was born there and we came back to Kenya in 1994,’’ he said.

The trio who we spoke to separately claimed they were promised that they would be paid a salary of $3,000 per month plus other benefits that included general insurance, beach plots in scenic Kismayu and Ras Kamboni and permanent resettlement in the war-torn country.

‘’We were told by the trainers that the job was well paying as it was funded by America and sanctioned by the United Nations. Everything would be done in dollars (US),’’ said the former officer.

The US was opposed to the recrutiment and former US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger reported in leaked diplomatic cables that “Kenyan recruits are reportedly being lured with promises of jobs, money, and an association with either the UN or Amisom.”

He said: “The recruits are attracted by promises that appear to vary with the recruiters and the region, but include a $600 monthly salary, promises that they will be working under the auspices of Amisom and will return to secure jobs in the Kenyan Army,” the envoy reported.

Sources close to Kenya Defence Forces personnel who trained the recruits at Archers Post said most of the trainers were drawn from Somali clans.

"Most of the trainers including junior personnel were from the Somali community. This was because of the language barrier,’’ said one of the sources.

"They had the best training with a lot of entertainment; they were taken for off duty every Saturday to Isiolo town in a shuttle bus. The per diem was good,’’ said another source.

In the period of the training, The Standard established that City Hoppa, a bus firm associated with the late Juja MP George Thuo, provided the transport.

Sometime in February 2010, the Kenya Defence Forces descended on Isiolo town, after some of the recruits who were off duty declined to go back to the training base demanding ‘down payment’ meant for their families.

They were rounded up from miraa kiosks and bars and taken back to the barracks at gunpoint. “We were going to riot because of the delayed allowances. We used to get Sh10,000 very Friday, but the amount was reduced to Sh3,000. That’s why that incident (desertion) occurred,” said one of the recruits.

Despite the Government’s claim that the recruits were trained as policemen, the men we spoke to disputed this as did our sources close to the military.

“They should have been taken to Kiganjo if they were to be trained as police officers. They were at Laresoro for a year and were trained in combat engineering, infantry, artillery among others,” said the source.

The recruits were taken to Gedo and Lower Juba to fight alongside TFG forces allied to the Ras Kamboni Brigade. But those we interviewed said they were used as canon fodder and placed on the front line where many of them died in the battle against Al-Shabaab.

“Many of the Kenyans died like dogs because those guys (the TFG soldiers) put us on the frontline and at times used us as human shields,” said one of the ex-combatant.

Besides, he adds, no allowances and monthly salary were forthcoming.

“I was in Fafadun area and somehow managed to come near the Kenyan border town of Liboi. It was hard to escape because the Somalis from Somalia did not trust us. They call us kafir (non-Muslims), but I managed to escape,” said the former recruit.

The man who sounded incoherent said he preferred to remain anonymous.

He dismissed the Government’s amnesty offer to youth who fought in Somalia, saying: “I am not Al-Shabaab, I was taken there by the Government. I am at risk from many quarters.”

The clan factor was an issue in the recruitment, where it was alleged that senior politicians from North Eastern, mainly from the Ogaden clans, wanted to help their kin in Somalia to set up a semi-autonomous state in Jubaland that Al-Shabaab and the Somali government was against.

On Saturday, National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale (URP, Garissa Town) told The Standard on phone that the report on how Kenyan youth ‘infiltrated’ the training of Somali troops at Archers Post and Manyani is gathering dust in Parliament’s archives.

"The parliamentary committee on security came to Garissa and other affected areas in 2009 to probe this matter. The report is there (National Assembly) even now,’’ he said.

Mr Duale said the youth were among others recruited from refugee camps, adding that leaders from Garissa managed to flush out 47 youth from Manyani in 2009.

"I do not want to speak for other counties but from Garissa we had 47 youth at Manyani. They were immediately removed from the camp,’’ he said.

Aldas MP Adan Keynan, who served as chairman of Defence and Foreign Relations committee in the last Parliament, said he would comment on the issue after the story is published. Keynan’s committee traveled to Garissa to investigate reports of recruitment from Garissa town.

‘"I will comment later as a rejoinder,’’ Keynan said on phone when asked what he knows about Kenyan youth who were recruited to fight against Al-Shabaab.

In a December interview with The Standard, Haji downplayed the issue saying anyone with evidence that Kenyan youth were trained as “Somalia police” should come forward.

But he agreed that ten youths from North Eastern “sneaked into” the Manyani camp, adding that they were lucky they escaped before being arrested and charged with treason.

On Saturday, he was not available when contacted on phone and did not respond to our text message.

The Department of Defence Spokesman Bongita Ongeri referred The Standard to his seniors for comment when contacted.

The US Embassy in Nairobi reported in leaked cables released by Wikileaks how Kenya recruited young, ethnic Somalis against the advice of its allies.

The Wikileak report said most Kenyan MPs from North Eastern were enraged when they learnt of the secret recruitment after families reported that their sons had disappeared from home.

Keynan’s committee in 2009 strongly opposed it saying it was not in Kenya’s national interests.

His concerns were echoed by Duale. “Duale said if true, the Government of Kenya's support for the recruitment effort would bring Somali’s war into Kenya and directly undermine his message to Garissa youth to ‘stay out of Somalia— this is not your fight,’” reads a cable filed by Ranneberger.

Secret cables

The cable added: “Kenya had grown increasingly alarmed by the chaos in the neighbouring country from 2009 after Al-Shabaab rallied hundreds of fighters from around the world to fight the Christian invaders following the December 2006 invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia.”

The secret cables indicate that the Kenya government started sharing its intentions to directly intervene in Somalia with its international security partners from around September 2009.

In a cable dated September 4, 2009, Ranneberger said Kenyan military officials asked for help from the US.

“Somali and Kenyan officials are working in concert to support a locally-driven effort in Lower Juba and Gedo to expel Al Shabaab. Somali President Sheikh Sharif and the Kenyan government have asked us to support the plan with weapons, medical supplies, communications and intelligence,” he wrote.

In 2009, the cables revealed, contrary to an earlier understanding, that Kenya was training Somali police, but also secretly trained about 4,000 Kenyan youth, to fight Al Shabaab.

“As the fight for control over Somalia’s Kismayo and Lower Juba region drags on, the Government of Kenya appears determined to send 2,000-4,000 newly trained recruits into Somalia, reportedly in December. Recent discussions indicate that many, if not most of these recruits, are in fact Kenyans of Somali origin from the Mandera region,” Ranneberger reported.

“Contrary to statements that these youth were Somali nationals, it turned out that all of them were Kenyan nationals of Somali ethnicity mainly from Mandera and Garissa,” the cable read.