NAIROBI – The attack that killed more than 70 people at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall last week was, according to al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militant group that carried it out, retribution for Kenya’s intervention in Somalia. That raises a simple question: What is Kenya doing in Somalia, and is it worth the price?
Since Kenya’s army invaded its northeastern neighbor two years ago, the government has told Kenyans that they were going to war against al-Shabaab. But, as with most official pronouncements in Kenya, that story was only partly true.
On the night of October 15, 2011, I lay awake listening to the Kenyan military convoys passing through the border town of Dadaab on their way to Somalia to launch the first foreign military campaign in Kenya’s history. The proximate cause was the abduction of two Spanish aid workers from the vast refugee camps that encircle Dadaab. For the Kenyan authorities, it was the final straw after a series of abductions of Westerners by al-Shabaab; to stop the incursions, they launched what military leaders believed would be a quick campaign.
Over the last two years, some progress has ostensibly been made. The two Spanish aid workers were released last July, and al-Shabaab has attempted only one abduction since. Moreover, the rebels have been dislodged from the southern Somali port of Kismayo, which was once their main base. But al-Shabaab retains control of the majority of Somalia and remains capable of striking Mogadishu, the capital, as well as Nairobi.
Given this, if the Kenyan government’s aim was, as it claimed, to destroy al-Shabaab, the intervention has been a spectacular failure. But there is much more to the story. In fact, retaliation against the militant group was little more than a convenient excuse to launch the so-called Jubaland Initiative, a plan to protect Kenya’s security and economic interests by carving out a semi-autonomous client state in southern Somalia.
While knowledge of the plan was initially confined largely to Kenyan government officials, it was not long before its contours began to be revealed. Kenya has installed a client regime in Kismayo, and has supported the new government in its quest to make Jubaland a semi-autonomous region, along the lines of Puntland, Somaliland, and the many other self-declared proto-states that have emerged as Somalia has unraveled.
Beyond preventing Somalia’s violence from spilling over into Kenya and undermining its security and its tourist-driven economy, such a buffer state could be forced to absorb the half-million Somali refugees who now live in Dadaab’s refugee camps. In this sense, the Jubaland Initiative is a policy of stunning racial profiling – and a gift to al-Shabaab recruiters in Kenya.
Furthermore, contrary to claims that securing Kismayo put al-Shabaab at a disadvantage, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported in July that the Kenyan Defense Forces have actually gone into business with al-Shabaab. The group’s profits from illicit charcoal (and possibly ivory) exported from Kismayo have grown since Kenya took control.
This highlights a fundamental problem: the Kenyan state’s endemic corruption constantly undermines its policymakers’ goals. Indeed, in Kismayo, Kenyan officials have reverted to their default occupation – the pursuit of private profit. Instead of working to achieve the diplomatic objective of defeating al-Shabaab, Kenya’s military, politicians, and well-connected businessmen have been lining their own pockets.
Moreover, Kenya’s desire to carve out a buffer state conflicts with the Somali government’s goal of uniting the country. Indeed, the last thing the government in Mogadishu wants is another semi-autonomous region challenging its authority – or another country annexing southern Somalia for its own purposes.
The United States and the European Union – which are bankrolling the African Union’s intervention in Somalia to support the Mogadishu-based government – have attempted to paper over the disagreement with Kenya over the Jubaland Initiative, despite its potential to fuel further conflict. In fact, Kenya-backed Jubaland forces clashed with Somali government troops in Kismayo earlier this year.
The Westgate attack should spur Kenya’s leaders to re-think their approach toward Somalia. A more coherent strategy would involve cutting off al-Shabaab’s funding and addressing the grievances – such as human-rights abuses against Somalis, discrimination against Muslims, foreign meddling in Somalia, and corruption – that motivate its recruits. In a bizarre twist, al-Shabaab even called on Kenyans to prosecute their leaders for post-election bloodletting in 2007-2008.
Given these intractable grievances – and, more important, the weakness and corruption of the Kenyan state – the cycle of violence will be very difficult to break. That is why the attack on the Westgate mall is unlikely to be the last such tragedy.