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Kenya's long, lonely and deadly march to Kismayu

By Daniel Wesangula | Published Sun, January 14th 2018 at 00:00, Updated January 13th 2018 at 22:37 GMT +3
Kenya Defence Forces bomb a suspected Al-Shabab position within Fafadun Township in Somali. [George Mulala |FIle Standard]

Seven years after Kenyan troops first had their boots on Somali territory, those on the frontline of what quickly morphed into a drawn out guerrilla war were left battered, but also with heads held high.

A string of quick successes that saw them gain ground, lending a much needed momentum against Al Shabaab. But a series of attacks on their bases, poor pay and what those interviewed termed as a money-making scheme by top military brass marred the mission for foot soldiers.

Early one Saturday morning in 2012, Kenyan boots marched on Kismayu, then considered the biggest prize yet. Many thought the incursion was over and that Kenya’s escapades across the border had come to an end.

But this was nowhere near the reality. Unknown to the dozens of battalions away from home -- thousands of kilometers away from their children’s smiles and the embrace of their wives -- the war had not even began and surprises were soon to follow.

Kenya was prepared for a battle. Al Shabaab, it seems, was prepared for a long war; a war that at some point threatened to run over our soldiers in Somalia. The tactics evolved, from open confrontation to guerilla. And this is where Kenyan forces were hit hardest.

There has been little accounting of activities of the Kenya Defence Force (KDF), who have since been incorporated to form part of the Amisom (African Mission in Somalia) contingent. However, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea -- mandated to report on violations of international law and sanctions on Somalia, including the financing of Al Shabaab and the targeting of civilians -- published a damning critique in 2015 on the activities of the Kenyan Army inside Somalia.

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At the outset of Operation Linda Nchi, the then KDF Spokesman Major Emmanuel Chirchir said on Twitter that Kismayu was not the goal of the incursion. Years later, the definition of Kenya’s activities remain unclear.

Though we have territorial gains in Somalia, this is marred by a string of losses both at home and on foreign soil. Successive UN Monitoring Group reports have indicated that the KDF did not dismantle Al Shabaab, the biggest goal of the incursion. Rather, the reports say, Al Shabaab managed to regroup.

The report also faulted KDF's rush for control of Kismayu, a key economic hub for the militants.

“Everyone knows they came for the port’s ships unloading sugar and other goods for smuggling into Kenya from Kismayu. Once docked, the ship cannot return to the Gulf empty. To be profitable, they need to load an export to take back. As the export of charcoal boomed in 2014, under the watchful eye of KDF and Jubaland authorities, the sugar price in Kenya dropped like a stone,” reads a 2015 Journalists For Justice critique of the war in Somalia.

But these spoils of war, as successive independent sources and at least a dozen soldiers Sunday Standard spoke to said, were limited to a cabal of top military officials and high-ranking politicians.

But according to KDF and Amisom strategy, the aim was to starve the militants of much needed financing and resources that they needed to continue waging war.

By its fourth year, the Somalia incursion started to look like a bad idea. Brutal force from KDF scattered the existing Al Shabaab camps. To adapt, the militia organised themselves into small cells. More importantly though, their operations spilled over to an ill-prepared country with a vengeance.

Sporadic attacks were launched in several parts of the country. Random grenade and IED explosions ripped through Nairobi and Mombasa. Then came the bloodier Westgate Mall and Garissa University attacks.

With the force spread thin, other paramilitary groups had to be roped into the operation.

At the Coast, after the brutal Mpeketoni attacks that continue to this day, often ill-equipped and inadequately-trained rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), like their compatriots from the rest of the uniformed forces, were called into action.

Yet even in these circumstances, many continue to play their role ever so earnestly, brushing away concerns over poor pay, delayed allowances and inadequate gear.

Tales of courage abound from the frontlines. The country has also grown wiser, with frontline experience and acquisition of hitherto inadequate gear and training.

The Kenyan forces are now getting into their eight year in Somalia. Critics of the war argue that it is time Nairobi pulled the plug on the operation.

Supporters say the enemy is yet to be defeated, that an exit now would only buoy him further and that KDF should pursue the war to a logical conclusion.