Kenya’s security forces losing the battle for Somali hearts and minds

By RASNA WARAH - I am glad that Charles Onyango-Obbo had the gumption to ask the “elephant-in-the room” question in his report on military actions in Somalia published in the EastAfrican last week:
Kenya’s security forces losing the battle for Somali hearts and minds

When does the Kenya Defence Force plan to capture the Al Shabaab-controlled city of Kismayu?

Ever since Operation Linda Nchi started in October last year, Kenyans have been regaled with stories from the frontline about successful battles against Al Shabaab.

But now, six months later, many Kenyans’ sense of pride in our defence forces is beginning to wane as they wonder whether the whole operation was not just a very expensive and ill-conceived show of bravado and whether the ultimate prize, Kismayu, is achievable.

We were told the KDF was in Somalia for the long haul and that it would not abandon the Somali people before rooting out Al Shabaab.

Yet, as the term of the Transitional Federal Government expires in August this year, questions are being raised about how long our defence forces can justify their stay in southern Somalia, and whether after being re-hatted as African Union forces, they still aim to take Kismayu.

Some things are also not adding up. Kenyans were told that Operation Linda Nchi was a reaction against a spate of kidnappings by terrorists at the coast.

Yet, when Judith Tebbutt, a British national, was released in March this year, news reports (and Tebbutt herself) described her kidnappers as pirates, not terrorists.

Did the government make up the Al Shabaab story to lend urgency to the incursion?

Meanwhile, reports about human rights abuses against Kenyan Somalis and Somali refugees by the Kenyan police have further eroded the credibility of those we have entrusted to protect and defend us.

A report by Human Rights Watch documents cases of rape, attempted sexual assault, beatings, arbitrary detention, extortion, looting and destruction of property in the towns of Garissa, Mandera and Wajir and in the Dadaab refugee camp.

These abuses were apparently retaliation against grenade and improvised explosive device attacks targeting both security forces and civilians in November and December last year in the towns and in the camp.

Human Rights Watch says that after the attacks, large numbers of ethnic Somali Kenyans and Somali refugees were rounded up and subjected to severe mistreatment.

Security forces also allegedly robbed many of their victims. One refugee was not only robbed of two mobile phones and Sh5,000, but had to pay a bribe of Sh7,500 to be released. He didn’t file a police report because he did not believe he would get justice.

According to the watchdog organisation, not only do the violent and indiscriminate responses of the security forces constitute serious human rights violations, the abuses are also alienating Kenyans of Somali origin at the very moment when they most need the trust and confidence of the local populations in order to identify the militants behind the attacks.

The Kenya Government has apparently promised to investigate these abuses, but no police or security officers have been charged, disciplined or otherwise held accountable.

The Ministry of Defence has taken some steps by forming an ad hoc board of inquiry, but it is not clear what will be done if the reports of abuse are confirmed.

This is an unfortunate development given that the KDF is fast losing the battle for Somali hearts and minds due to what now appears to be an un-focused military strategy.

I was among those Kenyans who believed that the country held the moral high ground when it took the decision to protect its northern neighbour from the clutches of Al Shabaab. Now I am not so sure.

It appears that the military decision to take Kismayu was politically and economically motivated, and coincided with the Kenya-supported Azania project, which itself is fraught with difficulties.

Some analysts believe that the kind of federalism advocated by Kenya and the UN-sponsored road-map for Somalia could further fragment the country and cause more instability in the long term.

By Rasna Warash -

Article 21 May 2021 10:14

I read your article on Foreign Policy with keen eyes and interest. While whining from public officials does not deserve response from any sensible citizen of the Republic of Somalia, I felt compelled to counter false narrative with more objective analysis.