Nairobi —That the attack on the DusitD2 hotel and office complex in Nairobi, in which 21 people died, including five of the attackers, was carried out by Somalia-based al-Shabab will come as no surprise. Ever since Kenya sent its troops across the Somali border more than seven years ago, its towns and cities have become targets for the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.
Kenya has always had a testy relationship with its neighbour to the northeast. In the 1960s, it even fought a proxy war with Somalia over what was then the Northern Frontier District, which was claimed by the latter but bequeathed to the former by the British colonial administration. The shadow of that conflict not only loomed over relations between the two countries, but also over Kenya’s relationship with its own Somali population, which the government continues to regard with suspicion as a “fifth column”.
The aftermath of the decision to invade Somalia in 2011 has stretched relations almost to breaking point. The Kenyan government initially claimed that the invasion was in response to a series of kidnappings of tourists and aid workers that Kenya blamed on al-Shabab, which had devastated its lucrative tourism industry. But a Kenyan government spokesperson would later admit that this was just a long-awaited, convenient pretext.
Many Kenyans, encouraged by breathless wall-to-wall media coverage, initially supported the invasion. But if, as the government claimed, it was meant to bring peace to Kenya’s outlying districts, it accomplished the opposite. Almost immediately, al-Shabab launched a campaign of attacks using hand grenades and improvised explosives, executing, on average, one attack every 11 days for the next three years — a ninefold increase in attacks compared with to the invasion.
But al-Shabab leaders wanted more. “The Kenyan Mujahideen who were trained by Osama in Afghanistan, stop throwing grenades at buses. We need a huge blow against Kenya. Hand grenades hurled can harm them, but we want huge blasts,” one al-Shabab leader reportedly told crowds near the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
The attack on the Westgate Mall in September 2013, in which at least 68 people were killed and the incompetence and corruption of the national security establishment was exposed, was the first of these, and it was soon followed by similar massacres close to the Somali border: in Mpeketoni town, at Garissa University and on buses in Mandera. The DusitD2 atrocity is just the latest. Throughout, al-Shabab made one demand: withdraw troops from Somalia.
The Kenyan government has consistently refused to withdraw, despite facing internal pressure to do so. It has defied calls from the opposition to bring the troops home, a petition in the Kenyan Parliament and a vote in the Somali Parliament demanding the same, as well as the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Kenyans in a November 2016 poll. It has insisted on maintaining the troops there as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) despite the terrible price Kenya is having to pay. In addition to the attacks on home soil, Kenyan troops in Somalia suffered the worst losses of any Amisom contingent since the mission’s deployment in 2007, and the worst military defeats in Kenyan history.
They are kept in place despite, or more likely because of, allegations of top generals and politicians profiteering from the smuggling of sugar into Kenya and the illegal export of Somali charcoal. These illicit smuggling routes also enrich al-Shabab, providing them with the resources to keep attacking Kenya.
Amisom has announced its intention to withdraw from Somalia next year and to hand over responsibility for security to a reconstituted and retrained Somali National Army (SNA). But this is unlikely to happen because the SNA is nowhere near ready. And recall that Amisom has previously promised and failed to implement a similar phased withdrawal, by which was meant to see the last troops were meant to leave by 2018.
As recently as October, President Uhuru Kenyatta declared that the troops would stay “until the restoration of full security in Somalia” — a dream that remains a long way off.
Add to that the reality that their presence is making United Nations-subsidised profits for the top dogs in the political and military establishment, and it becomes highly unlikely that they will be heading home anytime soon.
This, in turn, may mean more “huge blasts” are in store for the long-suffering Kenyan public — even though that protecting Kenyans is supposed to be the sole rationale for Kenya’s intervention in Somalia in the first place.
Patrick Gathara is an analyst and award-winning political cartoonist