When Kenyan troops crossed the proverbial Rubicon and entered Somalia nearly six years ago, it caught almost everyone by surprise. It was Kenya’s first sustained and significant foray into its troubled neighbour’s territory and ran counter to the country’s historic pacifism – at least in international, if not necessarily in domestic, affairs – as well as against the grain of the advice she had received from her much more experienced friends and patrons in the international community.
The immediate trigger of Kenya’s offensive was a spate of kidnappings of aid workers and tourists near the Somalia border, which had devastated the country’s lucrative tourism industry and which the government blamed on al Shabaab.
The objectives given by the government for the invasion were both confused and confusing and quickly escalated. They ran the gamut from rescuing the kidnapped foreigners to pushing al Shabaab away from the border and establishing a buffer zone, to the capture of the port city of Kismayo, the dismantling of al Shabaab and the stabilisation of Somalia.
The first few weeks were greeted with euphoric displays of patriotism from a polarised populace desperate for something to rally around. Less than four years prior, the country had almost torn itself apart following the shambolic and disputed elections of 2007. But if there’s one thing that can be relied on to rally a people, it is war.
Following the invasion Kenyans were treated to breathless coverage of the exploits and capacities of their valiant and heroic troops. Still, as John Adams, the second President of the United States said, “facts are stubborn things”.
The first hints of the morass Kenya had got herself mired in came early on. The invasion had been conducted at the height of Somalia’s dehr short rains season and Kenya’s motorised army quickly got stuck in mud. It would take nearly seven months to capture Afmadow, al Shabaab’s logistical base, and a year to get to Kismayo by which time Operation Linda Nchi had been wound down without achieving any of its objectives and 4,600 Kenyan troops transferred to Amisom.
It is arguable that the biggest casualties of the invasion have been the national security agencies and especially the KDF. Prior to the invasion, the KDF had been seen as a professional, disciplined, if spoilt and coddled, military force. It was widely thought to be immune to the moral and material decay afflicting the rest of the public service. Westgate put paid to all that. Few will ever forget the grainy CCTV footage of soldiers meant to be battling terrorists, instead strolling out of the Nakumatt supermarket carrying loaded plastic shopping bags.
For the KDF, the news kept getting worse. It was again at the centre of the failures in both Mpeketoni and Garissa University College, and was accused in a November 2015 report of profiteering from the Somalia deployment. On January 15, 2016, the KDF-manned Amisom base at El Adde was overrun by al Shabaab. Up to 200 soldiers were killed and a dozen kidnapped. A year later another KDF-manned camp was overrun by al Shabaab, this time at Kulbiyow.
None of this has done the KDF’s reputation much good. Today, its star is considerably diminished. It has turned out to be just as vacuous, corrupt, incompetent and unaccountable as nearly all the other public institutions in the political firmament.
The government has also instrumentalised the fear of terrorists to scapegoat communities, particularly Muslims and ethnic Somalis, in order to distract attention from its own actions and to try to roll back the freedoms guaranteed in the 2010 Constitution. Extrajudicial assassinations and disappearances have also become a preferred way to deal with those suspected of links to al Shabaab.
The October 2011 invasion may yet help provide Somalia with an opportunity to recover from its decades of turmoil, but the experience has already severely degraded Kenya’s institutions and dented her ambitions of entrenching democratic and accountable governance at home.
This is an excerpt of an article published in The Elephant