By Paul Goldsmith And Abdi Umar

Nairobi, Jun 30 2009 — Naturally, threats to bring down glassy skyscrapers and demands that Kenya withdraw security forces patrolling the border evoke public alarm.

Sometimes an ostensibly negative and emotionally charged development can flip over into a moment of analytic clarity.

The Al Shabaab surge in Mogadishu may be such a moment, at least we hope so, for those charged with formulating Kenya’s foreign policy.

Post-Barre Somalia has been a complicated crucible of ethnicity, ideology, dire material conditions, and predatorial behaviours geared to micro-to-macro political economies of war.

Add the reverberations of global jihad to this mix and the 18-year old conflict reduces to a clutch of familiar cliches: failed state, clan, warlord, Wahhabi networks, Islamist insurgents, terrorist safe haven, humanitarian crisis, battered civilians and IDPs.

This narrative begs to differ.

Nicholas Naseem Taleb traces what he labels the “narrative fallacy” to the human proclivity for reducing complex phenomena to simple patterns. The narrative fallacy is a function of “our vulnerability to over-interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths.”

Narratives are powerful but their margin of fallacy increases apace with the volume of information. This dovetails with, as two scholars of Africa have noted, the role of information as more crucial in disordered societies.

In respect to this role, there is information that can be used to falsify the conventional story.

Is Somalia a disordered society, generating an overflow of turbulence roiling what was already a disorderly region; or is it a case of forces within the disorderly region sustaining the disorder following out of the collapse of the Somali state.

Both hypotheses have merit. More significant is the fact that, for the insurgents, external interference is the problem.

Never mind the obvious contradictions, this is the source of the sabre-rattling rhetoric accompanying the latest Al Shabaab surge.

Threats fill the air as another in the series of governments cobbled together outside the country’s borders bites the dust.

Cheeky demands about pulling back your troops raise the pulse and resurrect bad memories. But it helps if we disagggregate the raw truths and fallacies at work.

The first falsehood is that Somalia is an ‘ignored’ crisis. On the contrary, hardly a month passes by without some high level discussions on Somalia in the United Nations, the Contact Group on Somalia, the IGADD meetings, the African Union, and the Arab League. Under the AU banner, foreign troops are embedded inside Somalia, supported, at arms length, by a phalanx of international organisations.

Over the last week, meetings have been held between the Foreign Minister of Egypt and Eritrea, Yemen has called upon a meeting with the Gulf Arabic states, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been making speeches, the United States has made statements, and held a meeting of the TFG and Somaliland in Washington.

The British ambassador to Ethiopia has made a trip to Hargeisa.

The Chinese, Indian, German, French, Russian, American, and British navies trawl the sea, a permanent American military mission observes from bases in Djibouti and Mombasa, NATO planes patrol along the coast, and unseen hands finance an “insurgency,” while the UN organises myriad peace conferences.

State-funded British, American, Saudi Arabian, Egyptian, and Russian (they’re back) broadcasting services beam out high quality signals offering their take on the “Somali crisis” to the millions of nomads.

Somalia turns a whole load of assumptions on their head, and is home to the most sustained piece of double speak on the planet today.

Not ignored, but rather, wilful ignorance characterises this crisis where actors and their proxies do their best to conceal their real motives, no side wants to display its hand, while once again brute force is displacing alternative methods for resolving the unsatisfactory stalemate.

The spokesperson for the African Union forces in Mogadishu repeatedly talks about the need to support the “legitimate government” of Somalia.

The Kenyan Foreign Minister speaks about the urgent need to defend the “legitimate government” of Somalia. The so-called insurgents repeatedly say they not recognise any government in Somalia, and consider the AU forces a brutal external occupying force. What is the reality, and what is “legitimacy” in this context?

The Somalia government claims to be democratically elected, based on supervised selections held at international conventions paid for by the usual four or five Western donors, plus the occasional token input by an Arab regime in the capitals of Kenya, Ethiopia or Djibouti.

At the end of these lengthy proceedings, one is declared president and a retinue shares out ministries, others are named Commissioners for various provinces, or head nonexistent departments.

The real problem begins when the president decides or is induced to go home and rule like other presidents. Unfortunately, the new president ends up becoming irrelevant to the realities unfolding on the ground zero of Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Baidoa. This class of political actors tends to be out of touch with the reality back home — and as we are now witnessing, quick to desert.

The Ministers are content to earn ‘salaries’ for governing from a distance, while demanding an army, police, and now navy paid for by others.

Sixteen governments later, the wonder is that the “international community” and the African Union are so eager to fall into this trap. Now Kenya is being put on the spot, voices in government and the press advocating intervention in circumstances where battle-hardened Ethiopia failed.

Somalia’s Al Shabaab insurgents control entire provinces, all the way from Lamu on the Kenyan border to Mandera. The insurgents have been our neighbours for over a year, controlling every town, and imposing government on the people. None except their salaried and uniformed personnel are allowed to carry arms. The beleaguered “government,” in contrast, has never extended its authority beyond the battered blocks around the heavily fortified Villa Somalia where the internationally recognised president depends on 4,000 AU troops to ensure his physical survival.

It seemed that the IGAD-Western alliance had finally got it right.

But the former Islamic Courts Union chair, Ahmed Sheikh Sharif, has let everyone down. Somali’s are now saying it’s the Abdullahi Yusuf government without Abdullahi Yusuf.

Brute force is once again displacing other methods for resolving the unsatisfactory stalemate. Unfortunately, the MoU conceding to Kenya rights to part of the Somalia’s offshore zone enraged even TFG supporters–implicating the Kibaki part in the larger conspiracy.

Another more positive fact deserves emphasis: through a long and costly process of trial and error Kenya actually solved its Somali problem. The scrawny alley cat is proving to be more formidable than the lion that was once the Somali state and of course each party has to do what it has to do.

Moreover, each player in this game has taken on voluntary a role in the region’s conflicts, and military intervention is not in Kenya’s docket.

At different times, the Ugandan middle classes, the rich Tanzanians, the royalist Ethiopians, the fleeing Rwandese, the elite of Southern Sudan have all left their legacy and capital in Nairobi.

It has benefited further by being a cool place next to all the fighting in Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, revolutionary Ethiopia, an oasis for the aid fraternity where business could be carried out, where money could be banked, where logistics could be organised.

By keeping out of the fray, Kenya was able to play host to aid organisations working in venues as far as Congo.

By keeping out of the fray, by talking to all sides in combat all the time, Kenya could host the northern and Southern Sudanese in their talks.

By being neutral and keeping out of the fray Kenyan could attract all the warlords and sundry and host them in their inconclusive talks without itself becoming a factor in the talks.

True, the Harakat al Shabaab extremists are scary and the situation is pregnant with unknown unknowns. The military option, in this instance, is lose-lose, and the prospects of war is generating considerable angst within Kenya’s Somali community.

For a number of weeks now, a creeping campaign demonising Somalis living in Kenya, caring little for facts, threatens to negate several decades of progress.

After four decades of being treated as a fifth column, Kenyan Somalis have a right to be afraid–very afraid, and have tried to keep under the radar as they prayed that the ill wind would blow itself out.

Curiously, like the TFG president, the alley cat has got the tongues of North Eastern Province MPs and civil society, despite their obvious interest in these affairs. It took Yusuf Haji, the Kenyan Defence Minister, to set the narrative straight.

In his interview with Harun Maruf of the VoA on June 24, he said Kenya had its own large Muslim population and did not feel threatened by the rise or non-rise of a Muslim state on its borders; for while it would defend its own territory, it had no interest in deciding regimes for its neighbours, but was willing to live and let live.

Hassan Aweis Dahir responded in a similar tone.

It is Kenya’s interest to continue the demilitarisation of its northern region and refuse to be drawn into fighting for one group or another. Kenya’s strength is soft power: the Foreign Minister should mobilise the country’s Muslim ulama to sort out the problem with Quranic Aya and Hadith.

Reported by Paul Goldsmith and Abdi Umar. Paul Goldsmith is a researcher based in Meru, while Abdi Umar is a consultant on pastoralist issues in the Horn of Africa.

Source: AllAfrica


  1. This is a beautiful and well thought out article.

    I agree, 100%, with the authors that it is not Kenya’s interest – short or longer term – to get involved in the messy business of Somalia. If kenya involves itself politically let alone militarily in the affairs of Somalia, it will definately lose in every possible way.

    Kenya would be foolish to fight a battle it knows it can never win. It will also unnecessarily throw away the hard earned gain and peace with its own Somali community in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, and to some extent, the coastal province populated by a majority of Moslim inhabitants!.

    Al-shebaab has nothing to lose by enticing Kenya into Somalia’s problem.

    Many Somalis believe that Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia was a God sent gift to Al-shebab because it enabled them to plausibly beat the nationalist and religious drum to the detriment of Somalis. It only strengthened Al-shebab.

    And as far as Al-shebaab is concerned, Kenya’s adventure will not be any different and in the end of the day they will be humiliated and chased out just like Ethiopians.