By JASON K. STEARNS
NAIROBI — When on Oct. 16 Kenya sent hundreds of troops into Somalia, its perennially problematic neighbor, it was going to war for the first time in three decades. The operation was ostensibly a response to recent raids by Somali militants into northern Kenya to kidnap tourists and aid workers. More likely, though, the Kenyan government seized the occasion to try to root out the Shabab, a group of Islamist insurgents, which has become increasingly meddlesome and dangerous. But it is stepping into a political mess, and for the moment the Kenyan government seems to be shooting from the hip.
Kenya has its fair share of problems – grinding poverty, in-your-face corruption, high crime rates. Outright war, however, has not been part of life here, and the invasion of Somalia has raised unfamiliar fears. Analysts were quick to spot inconsistencies in the justification for the military operation. Why doesn’t the Kenyan government take action when its own citizens are killed or kidnapped in cross-border raids? And why go all the way to Somalia to pursue the Shabab when the group has extensive money-making operations in the Kenyan capital? As Joshua Orwa Ojode, assistant minister for provincial administration and internal security, has put it, “Al-Shabab is like a snake whose tail is in Somalia, but the head is here in Nairobi.”
Still, since the first pictures of the Kenyan troops streamed across television screens last month, the mood on the streets of Nairobi has been largely supportive. “Let them get a beating,” my usually sedate taxi driver Peter said, “they can’t just come here and do what they want.” A poll taken this month on the popular local radio station Capital FM confirmed the sentiment: 87 percent of the 1,500 respondents supported the invasion.
One reason is that tourism brings in over $800 million to Kenya each year, and many Kenyans have worried that the kidnappings will hurt the sector. Reading between the lines, though, one can also detect a frustrated sense of pride. After the ugly post-election violence here in 2008, and in the face of recurrent corruption scandals, many have been eager to see decisive action taken against lawlessness.
But does the government have an adequate game plan? According to foreign diplomats here, it had been preparing for action at least since July, when U.N. investigators released a report detailing Shabab activities in Nairobi. Drawing on interviews with insurgents, phone recordings and bank transfers, the report described how Nairobi had become a hub of militant activity and financing. Shabab affiliates in the city had been planning bombings and other attacks. Similar accusations had been made before, but this time they were backed up with evidence.
By launching its operation last month, the Kenyan army was hoping to deal a fatal blow to the Shabab while it was weak. The group was reeling from having lost control over the Bakara arms market in the Somali capital of Mogadishu and up to $50 million in annual tax revenues. The famine that has decimated the Horn of Africa since July has also hit the militia hard: thousands of Somalis have turned on the group and left Shabab-controlled areas after it denied access to international aid groups. The Kenyan army’s main objective is to reach the port city of Kismayo, a Shabab bastion and the source of a $50 million in customs duties.
This is a risky gamble. There have been three grenade attacks in Kenya since the invasion. Footage on the evening news of the blood-stained floor at Mwaura’s, a drinking den in Nairobi, and of victims in hospital beds have prompted worries that the operation could make Kenya less secure. Police checkpoints have sprung up in the capital, and bars and shopping malls now conduct obligatory bag and body searches. Many Kenyans have started to wonder whether the government can clamp down on the militia without unleashing further attacks. “Lancing the abscess without killing the patient” is the way one Kenyan friend cast the challenge.
After quick progress at first, the Kenyan troops have been bogged down by heavy rains. Over the past week, they have hardly advanced toward Kismayo. And while Nairobi has been calm for the past two weeks, a grenade attack in the eastern town of Garissa has been blamed on the Shabab.
What’s more, in the medium-term the fallout from the Kenyan offensive could well exceed the risk of more attacks by Shabab. Even though it’s difficult to forecast how, the campaign will have an important impact on domestic politics, especially as Kenyan politicians ramp up for elections next year. Kenya has a history of opportunistic ethnic rabble-rousing, most notoriously after the contentious vote in 2007.
Some 2.5 million ethnic Somalis live in Kenya, and many have nervously thrown their weight behind the offensive. Somali clan politics reach deep into Kenya, and Kenyan-Somali politicians – such as Defense Minister Yusuf Haji and the deputy speaker of parliament Farah Maalim – are playing to their grassroots constituencies.
The Kenyan invasion of Somalia could also deepen existing rifts among the country’s Muslims – at least 10 percent of the population – who have been at odds recently over the creation of local Islamic courts and the perceived marginalization of the mostly Muslim coast.
As Christmas lights go up on the shopping malls in Nairobi, it is easy to relegate the war in Somalia to the policy backburner. But while the Kenyan tanks advance slowly toward Kismayo, important questions remain unanswered: What will they do once they get there? Can Kenya protect itself by occupying a foreign country? Will the government be able to keep a lid on simmering tensions at home?
Jason K. Stearns, a political analyst working on Central and East Africa, is the former coordinator of the U.N. Group of Experts on the Congo and the author of “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.”