Posted Sunday, November 20 2011 at 13:21
Kenya’s war, and Burundi and Uganda’s aggressive peacekeeping in Somalia, are having a far-reaching and unintended impact inside the East African Community countries.
While the three EAC countries all entered troubled Somalia to save it, there are signs that it is Somalia that is changing the way these countries do business at home.
The effect of the Somalia war, especially the activities of Al Shabaab, are even being felt in countries like Tanzania — which is not involved either as a peacekeeper or fighting force in Somalia — through the number of its young people being recruited into the militant group’s regional network. Last week, Home Affairs Minister Shamsi Vuai Nadodha announced that 10 Tanzanians had been arrested in Mogadishu fighting alongside the Shabaab.
While Kenya’s entry into the Somalia fray has its critics, it has kicked off a wave of nationalist sabre-rattling on the Internet. Not surprising, because though Kenya is the EAC’s leading economy, it was largely viewed as a wimpish nation, with an untested military led by pampered generals growing potbellied in luxury and never having to worry about firing a shot in anger.
Indeed, in a leaked US diplomatic cable published on the whistleblower website Wikileaks, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is reported by US diplomats in Kampala to have pooh-poohed the Kenya army’s mettle and ability to do anything about Somali insurgents. Museveni is reported as describing the Kenyan military as a “career army” and wondering about their ability to take on bush fighters. “Is Kenya used to fighting like this [bush and guerrilla warfare]? Would Kenya be able to provide logistical support to its Somali allies?” Museveni reportedly wondered.
Because of that view, which similar leaked US cables reveal are shared by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the meeting in Nairobi last week between President Mwai Kibaki, Museveni and Somalia’s President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed would have been unthinkable just two months ago. When it came to heavy lifting on Somalia, it was considered that Kenya had nothing useful to contribute.
In a few weeks, all that has changed.
Writing in Uganda’s main independent daily, the Daily Monitor (a sister publication of The EastAfrican), Member of Parliament Capt Michael Mukula noted, “Kenya has displayed that it is not a mere careerist. Its military hardware display inside Somalia has certainly raised eyebrows among regional military strategists.”
War brings with it death and destruction, but its ability to boost a country’s diplomatic standing has been displayed many times in the region.
Burundi, war-wracked, poor, and obscure, muscled up internationally when it became the only other country to send peacekeeping troops to joins the Ugandans in Amisom, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
Today Burundi, which used to be relegated to the back of the room, gets a front seat at international meetings on Somalia and peacekeeping in Africa.
By the time Burundi arrived at the table, equally tiny Rwanda had been punching above its weight for years, particularly after its lead role in ousting Congo dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997, and the sway it held over its neighbour, which is 27 times its size, as an imperial overlord of sorts for some years after that.
Rwanda had entered Congo to pursue the forces that carried out the 1994 genocide in the country, in which nearly one million people were killed. They had regrouped inside Congo, from where they were launching periodic attacks on Rwanda.
It was a campaign that ended in controversy, with Rwandan forces being accused of human-rights abuses and plunder. Rwanda, the saying goes, bit off and chewed up Congo, but could not quite swallow it.
Some observers think that Burundi — and possibly Uganda — got their appetite for peacekeeping from watching how Rwanda’s peacekeeping role in Sudan’s western Darfur region reversed its fortunes.
Rwanda sent the first main body of troops for the UN peacekeeping force in Sudan, UNMIS, in 2005. A grateful international community immediately became reluctant to criticise Rwanda’s Congo role. Before long, when Rwanda sneezed on Sudan peacekeeping, everyone caught a cold.
This was demonstrated dramatically last year, when a draft UN human-rights report accusing Rwanda of massacring civilians in Congo in the late 1990s was leaked. The report even hinted that Rwanda troops might have committed “genocide.”
Kigali hit the roof, and threatened to withdraw its forces from the Darfur peacekeeping mission. Rwanda’s argument was that if the UN believed its troops had committed genocide, then they were unworthy of being in a peace mission to prevent genocide.
A withdrawal would have effectively collapsed the mission. The UN panicked. In a first, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon interrupted a European visit, hopped on a plane, and headed to Kigali to press the flesh with President Paul Kagame and massage wounded feelings.
The UN said the report was a work in progress, and hadn’t been reviewed.
In the end, its release was delayed, and a “balanced” version was what eventually saw the light of day and made it into the official record.
Up to that point, it was only countries like the US or China that had the clout to get that kind of result.
As Kenya savours the newfound external attention and respect as a result of the war, it has to contend with several domestic challenges.
Because, unlike Uganda and Burundi, it shares a border with Somalia, its security measures to foil possible Al Shabaab suicide bombers have been more extensive.
Unusually, over the past three weeks, worshippers arriving for Sunday prayers found that they had to undergo security checks before entering the Lord’s house.
Most of the schools in Nairobi where the elite take their children have introduced detectors, and guards are peeking under cars with mirrors.
There is virtually no hospital, mall, or office building in Nairobi that you can enter without being frisked, scanned, or having your car checked.
However, these are petty changes that will not change society much.
Meanwhile, in the past few weeks Kenyans have seen more photographs of soldiers and weaponry, and heard army chiefs and spokesman speak, than they have for all of the past 15 years — including the period of post-election violence in 2008.
A national aversion to a high profile role for the military could just disappear in the process.
For Uganda, Somalia has been a particular blessing. Like Rwanda’s, the Uganda army, the UPDF, had its image battered by its adventures in DR Congo, where it was eventually condemned as a pillaging and murderous force.
A senior military officer in Uganda told The EastAfrican, “Somalia was a blessing. It has allowed our army to again be seen as heroic at home, and respected abroad”.