Al-Shabaab's greatest achievement could be remaking Kenya into a soft military state

Like his father before him, Kenyatta is a reluctant militariser, but he has argued a shortage of options as he seeks to protect his legacy.

FORMER Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda recalls the day in 1970 when Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, hurriedly invited him over to the capital Nairobi.

The president of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), precursor of the African Union, at the time, Kaunda says he found a very agitated leader in Kenya’s State House.

Mzee kept shouting Shifta! Shifta!,” Kaunda relived during a recent interview with the Mail & Guardian Africa. “I told him, Mzee (old man), I am your chairman here, and I don’t want to hear the word Shifta here anymore. He said, ‘All right Kaunda’ and so we had a fruitful talk.”

Kaunda, a pacifist, had three years earlier brokered a major agreement between Kenya and Somalia in an attempt to quell deadly border skirmishes between the two countries.

The “Shifta”—problem that so irked Kenyatta was the violent agitation by ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s frontier northern region to secede towards what they called Greater Somalia, an expanse that spans much of latter day Somalia and Somali-speaking regions in Djibouti, Ethiopia and north-eastern Kenya.

“Shifta”, a Ge’ez script word, was used by the Kenyan government to denote a common brigand in the propaganda war against the secessionists. The four-year conflict was one of Kenyatta’s biggest headaches while in power.

Nearly 50 years later, the remote north again poses a major challenge yet to another ruling Kenyatta—Jomo’s son Uhuru, who would otherwise have had a good end to his year, having has just shaken off crimes against humanity charges brought by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A nation’s confidence shaken

A spate of horrifying attacks by Al-Shabaab extremists have eroded Kenyans confidence in the ability of their government to protect them, and created a national security crisis the solutions to which promise to reshape the modern Kenyan nation.

In response to strident public criticism over the most recent attacks in northern Kenya, president Kenyatta purged his senior-most security officials, who had been under pressure since Somali militants laid brazen siege to Nairobi’s glitzy Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, killing 67 people.

Al-Shabaab say they will only stop their attacks if Kenya pulls its troops out of Somalia. But in an address to the nation last week, Kenyatta sought to rally national support and foster a siege mentality, tracing the country’s vulnerability to the collapse of the central government in Somalia in 1991. “Our country and our people are under attack,” he said.

Kenya crossed into Somalia in October 2011, following what Kenyatta said was “decades of horror, fear, outrage and frustration.” The country stood by that decision to pursue its enemies into Somalia and protect its sovereignty, he said.

Kenyan forces now form part of a 22-000 strong African Union peacekeeping force that has been battling the Islamists. Six African countries currently contribute troops to the force, but Kenya, which shares a 680-kilometre border with Somalia, has borne the brunt of Al-Shabaab’s retaliatory attacks.

Kenyatta nominated retired general, Joseph Nkaissery, a member of the opposition, as the new interior minister, continuing a recent notable pattern where military men have been picked to key security positions, including the country’s intelligence and immigration agencies.

Growing military shadow

The growing shadow of the military in Kenya’s political and internal security space is not lost on keen observers. The army has long had a tradition of non-interference in civil affairs, despite quicksand along the way, such as a coup attempt in 1982 which failed to get the support of senior military men. It also resisted widespread calls to intervene during the country’s fractious 2007 election dispute, the fallout of which has seen its top leaders charged at the International Criminal Court.

Its chief, General Julius Karangi, has increasingly been seen with Kenyatta especially post-Westgate, where the army was shielded from investigation, and it is significant that he was spared sanctions despite calls for his dismissal following a series of missteps by the army both domestically and inside Somalia, including claims of contravening a UN ban on exports of charcoal, Al-Shabaab’s main funding pipeline.

It would be rush to say the growing role of the army as an overtly deliberate action by the Kenyatta government; rather the growing militarisation appears to be more the accidental adoption of what is seen as a “necessary” approach at this point. This follows the realisation that Kenyatta’s economic and political legacy could be in tatters in the face of persistent threat to the country’s national security.

It is also not lost on many that the war on terror has traditionally appealed to western powers, who often look the other way when it comes to domestic transgressions of frontline states, with Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi a good example. This argument is also seen to have bought Kenyatta valuable space with the UN Security Council as the African Union fought to change the Rome Statute rules to prevent the indictment of a sitting head of state.

But can Kenya, which has tended to lean more towards centre-right in its post-colonial history, manage the shift to an almost Hobbesian school of thought? Militarisation, where a society either overtly or implicitly reorganises to use its army to act preemptively to  protect its national interests. There are already early signs of this process underway in Kenya— legislators are preparing to pass a package of tough counter-terrorism reforms that will undoubtedly stoke concern among human rights campaign groups.

Nations militarise for many reasons, including pushing back at perceived threats from other countries. The existential threat to Kenya is not one of a balance of power regionally—the country has never sought to be a politico-military hegemon in its immediate sphere of influence, a role played more eagerly by Ethiopia and Uganda, and more recently Rwanda.

Pursuing capitalist interests

The country’s core interest until now has always been growing space for its capitalist economy. There have been those nations, especially in the wake of World War II that sought to boost the state’s coffers and create jobs through a war economy. Kenya has had no such capacity or even inclination, and has instead sought to grow its economy organically, with little imperialist or expansionist ideology identifiable in its foreign policy. 

But for Kenyatta, who - breaking from tradition - often dons military fatigues, implied or direct militiarisation would be a case of a reluctant but necessary ideological shifts, and one with some political benefit for his regime.

In the early months of his term he had been happy to fight for political space in the face of the country’s new constitution which provided for progressive decentralisation. But the threat of national security allows him to reclaim a different, if more powerful centre, following a bruising, if tiring, battle with the devolved units.

But the activity of Al-Shabaab threatens the country’s thriving, if unequal, capitalism. Diplomacy, Nairobi’s preferred modus operandi, has had little impact—Somalia is too weak an entity to police itself.

Need to project strength

The militants also present another challenge to Kenyatta—the spread of extremist ideology at his doorstep. Already the Shabaab have found eager recruits at the Coast, leading to belated security operations to flush out sympathisers from the Coast, and stoking religious tensions. The development of an Islamic caliphate next door would be too difficult to even contemplate for Nairobi, as acknowledged by Kenyatta.   

The reality thus for him is that his own political survival depends on ensuring national security and projecting the image of a considered man in control— a role the normally-informal president has been forced to warm up to, and which seems to be growing on him. “We shall not flinch or relent in the war against terrorism,” he said, a repeated message in the last months that has helped bed in a more hawkish state machinery to Kenyans.

Kenyatta also finds ready peers geopolitically—Uganda and Rwanda, ardent backers of Kenya, are pre-eminent proponents of militarisation, a path in the post-colonial Africa era also trodden by Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Nigeria—the other regional giant that faces much of Kenya’s current problems.

Whatever the outcome, Kenyatta’s next steps will be closely watched, as he seeks to breath new life into his tenure and protect his legacy. Kenya was once a country where generals retired to go home, farm, write their memoirs, and wait to take their uniform only once a year when they are invited to attend national independence celebrations. Not anymore. Military service now seems to open the door to high civilian office. It is a new Kenya, thanks in good measure to Al-Shabaab.

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