Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Kenya! and Mind that War...

The final 'Yes' rally ahead of the August 2010 referendum on the revised Constitution in Uhuru Park.
Monday is Kenya’s Jamhuri Day...and the 12th marks not only the day that Kenya became a Republic, but that on which, one year earlier, it became independent from Britain in 1963.  Today, 16 months after voting in favour of constitutional reform aimed at overhauling a document seen by many as retaining too much of the bad old days of colonialism and the one-party states of both Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya is at war in Somalia and facing uncertainty about the timing of next year’s election.

It’s difficult to know what to think of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, a military action which looks set to get folded into the broader African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a move from which both groups will benefit—AMISOM as a result of having access to Kenya’s military muscle, and the Kenyan Defence Forces from the UN financial support this move would give their endeavour.  Al-Shabab has   My own gloomy tendency is to assume there’s not going to be a happy ending to this, particularly given the fighting that broke out during the week in Mogadishu, thought to have been ‘stabilised’ by military forces loyal to Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (although Ban Ki-moon touched down in Mogadishu just days ago). 

When Kenyan soldiers rolled across the border in October, most people appeared surprised.  The U.S. government said it hadn’t been forewarned (although we have precious little reason to take them at their word), and the impression from the speeches and press conferences of Kenyan politicians and military leaders was that this was a somewhat disorganised affair, thrown together from a need to do something, anything that would allow the government to be seen to address the festering situation on the northern border (a region, incidentally, which supported ivory poaching networks in the early part of the twentieth century and was the site of cross-border skirmishes between colonial Game Department officers in Kenya and poachers and traders operating across the border).

But there is other evidence which suggests this is part of a longer-term Kenyan strategy to, if not deliberately divide some future Somali state, at least to clear a border region of al-Shabab fighters and create a buffer zone.  Kenya appears to be giving tacit backing to a devolved model for Somalia, a variant on the Majimboism that Kenya periodically toys with.  It is still unclear whether al-Shabab actually was behind the abductions the Kenyan government cited as its proximate casus belli, so there is room for people to catch the whiff of ulterior motives.

I’ve been hearing from people in Kenya that the government has become increasingly reticent to divulge convincing details about its campaign, although as even the LA Times noted, Major Emmanuel Chirchir has taken to Twitter, a move replicated by al-Shabab in an effort to win the propaganda war.  The Kenyan military has identified al-Shabab’s propaganda offensives as a sign that the organisation is in disarray, and al-Shabab has said much the same of each Kenyan announcement, so one hardly knows what to think.

Kenya’s normally commendably vigorous media have been comparatively mum when it comes to critical investigation of the war.  That might stem from the difficulty of criticising a military action seems to be broadly popular with the public.  It might be a result of the difficulties inherent in actually reaching the front-line to see things first-hand.  Or it might have something to do with the novelty of covering one’s own country at war, adapting to a different kind of reporting, and delivering news in formats that don’t offend a readership that probably tends to think of its armed forces in comparatively uncritical terms (Kenyan journalists, in this regard, are still doing a better job than their British and U.S. counterparts!).

The more cynically minded believe that Mwai Kibaki could use the war to put off the 2012 election (the field of candidates is already plagued by near-constant uncertainty as Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto face charges at the Hague, which might leave the field to Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka) already the subject of much wrangling between those who believe that it should take place in August and those who maintain that preparations will not be in place until December...or later...  Makau Mutua reads this dangerous possibility as one of the weaknesses of the Constitution.  I have nothing other than a gut feeling to go on (and that could have more to do with the rare cup of coffee I had at lunch-time...yes, even the girl at the buttery till who monitors my intake and makes sure I only eat the vegetarian meal looked surprised at that), but I don’t see Kibaki trying to hang on at this stage.

Most worrying is what the ongoing war means for Somalis in Somalia, who are of course in a precarious position between three or four military forces—those of Kenya, AMISOM, the ‘official’ Somalian government, and al-Shabab—and for Somalis in Kenya, who are said to be facing persecution

The myth of Kenya as a rock of stability and democracy during the Cold War and beyond holds little water with anyone familiar with the Moi regime or the calculated decision by Kenyan political elites to feed the fires of ethnic conflict in their politicking.  But in the aftermath of the 2010 constitutional referendum, the country was possessed of a real sense of optimism.  Let us hope that the military foray into Somalia will not give Kenyans cause to regret their newfound faith in their institutions. 

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