Brave and sharp major who led KDF to its worst ambush in Somalia

The portrait of Major Geoffrey Obwoge who was part of the team that had earlier conquered Kismayu before the dying in the deadly ambush [Eric Abuga| Standard]

The dreaded call came shortly after Christmas.

Major Geoffrey Obwoge was needed back at work for immediate deployment. He asked no questions. There was no time.

As required in his job, he swiftly bid his young family farewell and reported back to camp.

After arriving at his station at Moi Barracks in Soy near Eldoret, he knew he was headed back to Somalia. Obwoge quickly assembled his team from the 9 Kenya Rifles Formation ready for the assignment.

He had a deputy as second in command and three lieutenants as platoon commanders to back him up.

Few days later, they were on their way to the frontline, through a stop over in Wajir. His main assignment was to relieve the previous team that was now spent and exhausted having been on the ground for a year. 

He was then to plan how to cover new territory and advance the KDF march into enemy land. 

It was the beginning of what would be the worst week by the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) in the seven-year battle against Al Shabaab in Somalia, a week that survivors would rather forget.  

There was nothing to doubt that he would deliver. At just 33, Major Obwoge was one of the first rising stars of the military. He was already being seen as an experienced soldier having been part of the team that conquered Kismayu a year earlier.

He knew the terrain, or was expected to.  

“After he arrived, he called us and said he had arrived. They were attacked just one week later,” Elizabeth Obwoge, his mother, narrates at his home in Ogembo, Kisii County.

The ambush  

The attack started at around 4am, January 15, 2016.

The previous day, the last soldiers from the Kenya trained Somali National Army (SNA), whose camp was located 600 meters away, had left. They disappeared as soon as they learnt of the magnitude of the imminent attack.

It is at the SNA camp that the first explosion went off. A decoy.

Al Shabaab wanted to pull out KDF soldiers who would respond to the SNA camp explosion, and pick them out one by one. Instead, KDF sat still, and waited.

The initial plan having failed, Al Shabaab militants decided to march on, sending ahead of them suicide bombers. The first suicide bombers drove into the camp between 4am and 5am, blowing off at the gate.

Though the survivors and military sources give some conflicting accounts on what transpired next, one of the most credible sources say one of the car bombs was being driven on a Toyota Prado. 

The militants were minutes behind, arriving on trucks to stage a fierce mortar and bullet exchange.

Some headed straight to the communication mast and destroyed it, cutting off communication within the camp and to a large extent the outside world.

By this time, Major Obwoge had lost command of the camp. His men were outnumbered, 10 against one. The El Adde camp had 234 men that morning.

What followed was a bloodbath. It is understood that some of the dead soldiers may have been killed by friendly fire since there was no command following the ambush. 

Kenya lost 173 men in that deadly attack. Another 13 were kidnapped, in what has become Kenya’s largest military loss in history. 

A survivor who fought side by side with Major Obwoge says he saw a Toyota Prado smash into the gate, exploding and killing more than 50 men manning the entrance to mark the beginning of a 10-hour battle.

He says there were about 2,000 Al Shabaab militants that raided the camp that morning. By the time they were run over, KDF had killed at least 500 and left hundreds others nursing injuries. 

Some attackers spoke in fluent Swahili, an indication they were probably Kenyans or had at least lived in Kenya.

“There were more than 2,000 attackers. Make no mistake, we killed more than 500 and that is the story many people will never know,” he says.

They had been on standby most of the night. It was when they thought it had been a false alarm and were now easing their guard to welcome dawn that the enemy struck.

It is believed that Major Obwoge had been pre-warned of the attack, but to not create too much panic in the camp, he chose to play it calm but kept his men on high alert for the night.

“We all knew there was going to be an attack. We were on standby through the night. I heard of the impending attack at around 1am deep into the night. So we waited. But as it neared 4am, we started thinking that it was just another threat that would pass. So we had started relaxing. We were wrong,” a survivor narrated.

He, however, believes that his then commander, Major Obwoge, did not show he had any prior intelligence of the attack earlier than the rest of the team.

After the camp was overrun, some members of the Al Shabaab militia rushed to the kitchen where fresh supply had just been shipped in from Nairobi. 

At this time, the few survivors left had either fled on foot or were holed in their deep trenches, covered to their neckline. The heavy fire had helped burry at least three soldiers in their trenches.

Others who survived would be found buried beneath the bodies of their dead colleagues.

As soon as the Al Shabaab saw the amount of food, some lost focus on the battle and concentrated on carting away as much food. The militants made away with thousands of fish, chicken and eggs.

“They seemed excited when they saw the food. One shouted that they would eat officer’s food that day. They loaded the mostly frozen foods and refrigerators to a brown Fiat truck which they had arrived in as the assault continued,” a survivor said. 

Steak and meat on bone available at the camp on the fateful day is estimated at about 9,000 kilos, enough to sustain the camp for months, he says.

He miraculously escaped with only an abrasion from a bullet, before making what he estimates to be about 100 kilometers.

What went wrong?

Five men would walk for three days from dawn to dark after the Friday ambush, for help to arrive from a plane on a search and rescue mission on Sunday evening.

“We agreed that whatever happened, we were better off dying fighting than allowing to be captured. So we were ready to shoot,” he said. 

One of the men had about 210 bullets on him. Two others had about 100 bullets. They hardly spoke. They survived on two-delmonte packets of juice that one of the survivors picked on his way out.

The survivor recalls that one of the five men almost gave up and asked to be shot dead to end his troubles moments before they were rescued. 

“We drew their attention by waving t-shirts in the air,” he said.  

The plane made two trips to move the survivors to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport before onward transmission by ambulance to the Armed Forces Memorial Hospital.

“We were rescued by a Z-9, a military chopper. They were two, one came and took three of us as the other one covered them. Immediately the second one came and took the remaining two,” he says. 

Some of those who came back alive faced scrutiny and were branded traitors for ‘abandoning’ their colleagues at their hour of need. When the guns stopped firing, Obwoge was not among those that were found. It remains a mystery if Obwoge was among those that were kidnapped or if he died in battle that fateful day. 

“We were told he was kidnapped. Then after that we were told to just wait,” his mother says.

Described as a stubborn, no nonsense general, Major Obwoge is said to have been a soldier who never believed he would be wrong. Those who hated him mostly did so because of his ‘always right’ stance. Those who admired him mostly did so because of his sharp mind. 

Obwoge was first deployed at the 9KR Battalion after joining the military. He was then moved to the Recruits Training School.

Here he earned the reputation of a mean soldier who humbled and crushed the spirits and dreams of many trainees wishing to get out on the other side as soldiers.

His mother recently asked that his grave be flattened to help deal with the ghosts and pain of his death. She says she requested it to be levelled to help her forget and ‘move on’. And it was. It has no cross, in line with the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) practices. No epitaph. Neither is it cemented.

The mother says the pain of waiting to know her son’s fate was too much but was relieved after the remains of her son were found and brought back to home after more than three months. 

His wife, who is understood to have been last family member that spoke to Major Obwoge, declined a media interview. 

Just like hundreds of other soldiers, he was identified through DNA. No one was allowed to view his body. KDF says the delay was caused because DNA tests had to be conducted on his body was badly burnt body.

Today grass has grown on what was his grave in Nyakorokoro village, in Kisii county, fading out any sign that here lie the remains of Major Obwoge, with him, buried the puzzle of whether he ignored intelligence and put at risk the lives of his men.