Kenya’s war on Al-Shabaab, which the country took to southern Somalia through Operation Linda Nchi in 2011, turned, within a short time, into a grinding down of the country’s national security (structures), with well-coordinated retaliatory attacks within Kenya. When it appeared like the deadly assaults, whose death toll conservative figures put at just below five hundred, people began to question the relevance of the claimed victories by the Kenya Defence Forces over the terror group. None was more vocal than the Opposition and Civil Society groups in calling on government to reconsider the KDF’s continued stay in Somalia, to stem the loss of lives and property.
When the Kenya Defence Forces entered Somalia four years ago, they had two broad objectives: capture the port city of Kismayo, arguably the mainstay of revenue for the terror group, and to crush the militia. The first objective did get realised, a slow and painful year later; but whether KDF has or is succeeding in meeting the second objective is debatable. Some give it outright thumbs down.
David Anderson and Jacob McKnight in “Kenya at war: Al-Shabaab and its enemies in Eastern Africa” argue that while Al-Shabaab has lost its monopoly in Kismayo, the Islamist militia “remains a potent and dangerous force: it still controls much of the countryside of southern Somalia, hampering the movement of the Kenyan military and other components of the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) through regular ambushes… meanwhile, its affiliate, Al-Hijra, has proved capable of bringing the war back into Kenya”.
Indeed, since 2011, Al-Shabaab has repeatedly issued threats to Kenyans and their government for “invading Somalia”, and followed those up with retaliatory attacks on targets in Nairobi, Garissa, Mandera and Lamu, among other towns. The “blowback”, the authors note, from the invasion is now having an impact on Kenya’s troubled internal politics.
At this point, it should be remembered that Kenya’s military chiefs had, for years, been toying with idea of entering southern Somalia, a fact that was made abundantly clear when it went ahead to “invade” Somalia without, as Anderson and McKnight note, “the support of key Western allies, and without a common agreement with Ethiopia, which shares a border with Jubaland. As invasion turned into occupation, this would become a critical issue, but within a month of crossing the border the Kenyans appeared to have engineered broad-based diplomatic support. In November 2011, President Mwai Kibaki met his Ugandan counterpart, Yoweri Museveni, and Somalia’s leader, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, in Nairobi. Declaring their unity in tackling the regional security threat presented by Al-Shabaab, their joint statement described this as an ‘historic opportunity’ to defeat terrorism.”
As Kenyans try to grasp the fact that their country is at war, the soldiers they sent to deal a decisive blow to Al-Shabaab could have forgotten their mission, and are now fighting for supremacy in Southern Somalia in a bid to control trade, at least this is what Journalists for Justice claim to have established. The group reveals how Kenya Defence Forces are unwittingly funding the terrorists they had gone to neutralise. The question becomes, what victory does Kenya seek in Somalia? Whose interests does the KDF serve – the country’s, Al-Shabaab’s, their masters’?
Journalists for Justice, in their recent release “Black and White” answer this question by exposing a racket chaperoned by the Kenya government, and involving the KDF, Al-Shabaab, Kenya Police and the government of Jubaland. Government, JFJ reports, maintains KDF in Somalia because it facilitates the movement of large sums of money – into the billions of shillings for each of those involved – through illegal charcoal and sugar trading.
Anderson and McKnight, endorsing this position, assert: “An explanation of how Al-Shabaab maintained their strongholds in southern Somalia, and their fighting force, despite the loss of Kismayo, can be found in the rent-seeking behaviour of the KDF and its allies.”
Quoting sources from within the KDF, Parliament, and foreign embassies, JFJ describes a situation in which ranking military personnel coordinate a smuggling network that includes “commanders of KDF forces under the ambit of Amisom, as well as officials in the ministries of Defence and Immigration and State House, who enjoy State protection.
Black and White begins with an indictment of KDF, which JFJ accuses of “permitting Al-Shabaab to regroup, instead of dismantling it. On the face of it, the journalists are saying that the real reason government entered Somalia was to get a share of the illegal charcoal and sugar trade. The following excerpt captures the essence of their claim:
“…it is an economy that thrives on insecurity. Stability and the proper functioning of law and order, regularised border crossings and lawful taxation would pose a greater threat to the circular trade than anything else… War is more profitable (for a select few) than peace. Kenya’s invasion of Somalia has not brought it peace; rather it has brought Somalia’s conflict dynamics into the heart of Kenyan society.”
Anderson and McKnight concur. The authors warn that the skewed view that considers Amisom activities as being responsible for Al-Shabaab’s weakening is dangerous, one that is likely to inspire complacence in a future where Al-Shabaab is resurgent and bolder.
Rather, Al-Shabaab likely entered into a covenant with the military for a mutually beneficial ceasing of hostilities of sorts. Attitudes amongst Kenya’s Muslim community about their place in the Kenyan society, especially where there are loud comments about marginalisation and distrust, provide the grounds for Al-Shabaab to exploit the deep sense of disenfranchisement at the Kenyan coast, and in the north-eastern region to gain sympathisers and recruits. Indeed, this, as government admits, is already happening. They note:
“Far from sweeping Al Shabaab into the sea, the intervention in southern Somalia has fuelled wider political dissent within Kenya. Building on the extensive literature on eastern Africa’s recent jihadist struggles, we emphasise the capacity of the Islamist group to adapt and transform. The flexibility and responsiveness of Al-Shabaab in the past has transcended its internal factionalisms between nationalist and internationalist jihadi elements, enabling it to react speedily to opportunities, both economic and political, without allowing ideology to impede its progress.”
Anderson and McKnight however fail to recognise the changes in the Kenyan landscape. With devolved government up and running, areas that were marginalised by successive regimes can now take charge of their development agenda. A case in point is Wajir County that was able, through the county government, to tarmac road, something the national government was unable to do for 50 years.
The UN monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea has conducted extensive research and documented the link between illegal charcoal and sugar trading to Al-Shabaab activities, noting that Al-Shabaab “benefits from the taxation the group levies at each stage of the charcoal business, and from its close relationship merchants at the centre of the trade, who pass on the profits to Al Shabaab.”
In 2011, UN estimates of Al Shabaab earnings from this illegal taxation were $25 million (Sh2.6 billion) annually. In 2013, after KDF had taken Kismayo, this figure had soared significantly.
JFJ, quoting UN sources and figures, reveals that when KDF took Kismayo, it inherited upwards of one million bags of charcoal. Both the UN and the Federal Government of Somalia appealed to the KDF not to allow export of the charcoal, to suppress and possibly cut off financing for the group. But a few months later, trading was back in full swing, abetted by KDF and the administration of Jubaland, and bringing in revenue in levels not seen before.
Still quoting figures from the UN, JFJ details the earnings of Al Shabaab from charcoal trading: Sh1.5 billion from checkpoints; Sh100 million in export taxes; and a 30 per cent shareholding of the $400 million (Sh12.8 billion) market. In total, Al Shabaab gets in excess of $100 million (Sh10.2 billion) annually from the trade.
Notes a 2013 UN report on Al Shabaab activities in Somalia as quoted by JFJ:
“The port is under the joint security and control of the KDF and Ras Kamboni Brigades (RKB); both undertake joint operations at the port… According to charcoal traders and shippers, the Kenyan Navy has oversight at the port, and a KDF officer – a Major Maingi – was the focal point in offloading and loading of vessels.”
The case of the KDF in Kismayo, notes JFJ, is the kind of conflict economic model present in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and elsewhere, where war is more profitable than peace. In Kenya’s case, because of the massive profits to be made from this illegal trade, the incentive to keep the North insecure and ungoverned becomes apparent. It also explains why KDF is reluctant to leave Kismayo even after “capturing” and liberating” it.
JKF further asserts that far from building peace, KDF’s interest is to militarise northern Kenya, and push policy to make that possible, to gain more control and profit from related spheres as well, such as counter-terrorism. It is this revelation that now fuels the perception of systematic promotion and sustaining of conflict by politicians and military chiefs in the neighbouring, to keep this platform for enrichment possible and alive.
“Black and White” identifies as Brigadier Walter Koipaton, the overall KDF sector commander for Kismayo. Brigadier Koipaton works with the port manager, Abdullahi Dubad Shil, alias Hadun, who collects the duties. Hadun communicates with the brigadier through an officer of the rank of Captain, who is KDF’s in-charge at the port.
The report further claims a source within the KDF with the rank of general revealed that Brigadier Koipaton collects revenue on behalf of the KDF network and Jubaland President Adan Mohamed Nuur Madobe. The sources further revealed that the former sector commander for Kismayo, a Brigadier Ngere “did not dance to the network’s tune and was replaced by a junior officer – Koipaton – who was quickly promoted through the ranks.
Because of the secretiveness of the operation, it is difficult to estimate exactly how much the players – KDF and Madobe – get from the illicit trade. But a UN monitoring group puts the number of bags of charcoal exported monthly from Kismayo at one million. The duty per bag in 2014 – it had doubled my April 2015 – was $3 (Sh300). Of the $3, KDF used to take $2, meaning that the network was making between one and two million dollars a month, amounts that are validated, JFJ says, by receipts seen and verified by the UN monitoring group.
The Haji factor
Further documented by JFJ is that UN reports made in 2013 and 2014 name more than 30 Jubaland’s Chamber of Commerce – many of them Kenyans based in Garissa, and which included a Nairobi Businessman. Many of those in this list, it is understood, have been linked to Al Shabaab in some way or the other. But despite government knowing about them, they move freely in and out of the country, which is saying a lot for an administration that paints the picture of one committed to fighting terror.
A diplomat interviewed by the JFJ puts a senior former MP and cabinet secretary under the Kibaki Administration in the centre of this smuggling ring.
“The KDF controls everything, together with Yusuf Haji… Even Madobe (the president of Jubaland) answers to Yusuf Haji (Madobe is a member of the Ogaden Clan, of which Haji is the most influential member).” It is a network, it is said, he (Haji) established and executed while he served as Kenya’s minister for Defence under the Kibaki administration.
An MP from the North Eastern who spoke to JFJ intimated that “a high-ranking member of Parliament, his brother and another former high-ranking MP are all involved in the trade… These are the people who order the cargoes, arrange the financing and provide the political cover for the shipments. Workers at the port in Kismayo said that Hadun, the port manager said to be working with Brigadier Koipaton, is a close associate and relative of Haji.
Journalists quoted by JFJ concur, adding that Hadun is from the Ogaden Clan. Haji, it is concluded, on the basis of multiple sources, is now grooming his son – who has been mentioned in UN reports as well – to take over from him.
So exasperated is the international community and other global organs that they have all but given up trying to impress upon government why a decisive blow needs to be dealt to the terror group. “This goes pretty high, very close to Uhuru…” said a UN official in reference to the manipulation of the sugar market and its smuggling from Kismayo. “The KDF is in it up to the neck.” A Brigadier in the KDF corroborates this account: “The military is in charge… Politicians cannot tell military chiefs what to do… The commanders have amassed a lot of wealth… if you want to survive at a high level in the KDF, you have to play ball… you have to be corrupt.”
There is not much the international community, led by the US and UN, can do to limit the opportunities for this illegal trade to thrive. Another UN official interviewed by the JFJ explains: “The United Nations cannot put people in the ports; it can only work with the Federal Government of Somalia to try and re-equip the coast guard… They (UN, UK, US) cannot insist too hard because they have other interests that bar them from making any real demands – the UK, for instance, is in the middle of renegotiating its memorandum of understanding on military training facilities in Kenya.”
Naturally, the Federal government of Somalia is furious – this collaboration between the enemy (Shabaab) and KDF affects them more and in ways Kenya cannot begin to fathom; sadly, there is only so much the fragile government can do. Unable to find another way to deal with it, it has begun to withhold intelligence on Al Shabaab from the KDF, and attempting to neutralise the militia on its own.
“One wonder,s” notes a UK intelligence official, “why we bother doing anything at all when the collusion between Kenya and Al Shabaab is undoing the gains so far made.” Other Amisom forces, of which Kenya is part, seem either unbothered or are too weak to do anything about it.
But collaboration with the enemy and illegal trading is not the only crime the KDF is being accused of. Multiple accounts from residents and witnesses in Somalia tell of deliberate attacks on civilians, rape, detention and disappearances perpetuated by the Kenyan military, especially after the wave of terror attacks in Westgate, Mpeketoni and Garissa. Where the Kenyan public was made to believe Al Shabaab targets were getting hit, it was actually civilian targets.
Because the West is disillusioned and disinterested, and with little or no investigation by both local and international agencies to establish the veracity of number of Al Shabaab fighters killed, the KDF peddles whatever number it wants to feed the public to both justify their continued stay in Somalia, and to appear to be meeting their objectives.
The problem with all this, Anderson and McKnight, conclude, is that KDF is helping Al Shabaab reinvent itself; in the end, this will be a much harder problem to solve. The country must therefore be prepared to deal with an enemy recreated by itself, with much financial clout, and which is not confined to Somalia – the trade has allowed it to form and maintain vital contacts in and out of Kenya, even within the military.
Having facilitated the creation of a conflict economy in Northern Kenya and Somalia, withdrawing troops, which government seems unwilling to do, will not help bring peace. Similarly, dealing with corruption within its own military, as JFJ concludes, will be that much harder than defeating Al Shabaab.