Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi Smile Like Siamese Cats At London Somalia Meet; But What The Hell Is Going On In Kismayu?

•Kenya has trained and armed 4,500 Ras Kamboni fighters – while Al Shabaab has about 3,500 fighters left.

•With ‘victory’ in Somalia near, the British have eased pressure on President Museveni to behave at home.

•Ethiopia needed a trophy ahead of the London conference; it captured Baidoa.

•Burundi’s Nkurunziza was feeling so good, he didn’t see the need to show off.

Kenya troops in Somalia (Nation photo/with permission)

Last Thursday’s London Somalia Conference has been dismissed by the hasty as having broken no new ground, and recycled the same old hat. Really? Not if you talk to Kenya and Uganda military officials.

Of course, the June 2011 Somalia Conference in Kampala which extended by one-year the life of the Transitional Federal Government  (TFG), and from which Abdiweli Mohamed Ali emerged as the new Prime Minister, was definitely more important than the London meet. So was the April 2011, 9th Extraordinary Summit of the East African Community heads of state in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, that signalled a shift to a more aggressive posture toward the Al Shabaab militants, and was the first high level group anywhere to suggest that the TFG should get an extension.

Yet the military patrons in Somalia who were at the London Somalia conference – Ethiopia, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and the African Union – were licking still their chops.

The Conference was significant for Somalia watchers, because for the first time it brought together, and revealed, nearly all the international players who have a stake in Somalia, but have been hiding their hand.  It was a coming out party of sorts.

Secondly, it was an acknowledgement of an important fact – the African Union through its peace-enforcement force AMISOM (comprising Uganda, Burundi, and lately Djibouti, forces), Kenya, and Ethiopia, have come close to breaking the back of what the world had come to be view as an intractable problem. And, though as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni once said, London represented the continued attempt by the western powers to grab the glory from a Somalia promise that has been brought about through the heroic blood of Africa’s children, London showed that Africa, however infrequently, can offer leadership on an international problem.

On the ground the actors, looking to influence the headlines about them as the London conference approached, became very busy in the weeks before.

The Shabaab, who were pushed out of all districts of Mogadishu by the Ugandan and Burundi AMISOM troops last year, made a spirited attempt to retake the city with their boldest offensive in months, and a string of terrorist bombs to make the place seem ungovernable. President Museveni and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, not wanting to show up in London with egg on their faces, threw everything they had back at the Shabaab – and prevailed.

The TFG, especially Prime Minister Ali, went into a flurry of activity aimed to demonstrate that they were on top of the situation. Ali also seems to have been aware that how he played his moment on the stage in London could secure him a future job as Somalia’s CEO. For the first time in 20 years, roads were marked and new street signs put up in Mogadishu. The government and AMISOM then put out statements that, together with things like making the beaches safe enough for Mogadishuans to go and frolic for the first time in decades, were meant to signal that the city was finally returning to normal and the interventions were not in vain.

But it was Ethiopia, Kenya, and US president Barack Obama who perhaps played the most interesting game. Having lost face in the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, and then re-entered the fray late Kenya’s foray in October 2012, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi sought a victorious arrival in London.

Two days to the start of the conference, Ethiopian troops in Somalia, together with some TFG forces, took the approaches to Baidoa, an Al Shabaab stronghold, and once the base of the TFG parliament.

A few hours before the conference started, the Ethiopians blitzed the city; the Shabaab scattered, and Zenawi had his triumphant headlines of the capture of Baidoa. He could afford to be cocky in London.

Kenya did the opposite. It avoided capturing Kismayu port, inviting snide comments about the “snail pace” at which its campaign was proceeding. However, the Kenya army had been applying the squeeze on this most precious of Al Shabaab’s prize’s, disrupted exports of charcoal to the Middle East, and snuffed out the militant’s last source of rich resources, days after it had announced that it had formally joined Al Qaeda.

But Kenya was seeking an even bigger trophy. Wary of being financially bled-out by holding down Kismayu for long and paying for it from its pocket, Nairobi all but blackmailed the UN. It showed it could control events around Kismayu, and by its actions suggested, “we can take Kismayu, but we need to know that the international community will pay for it. So how much do you want it”?

Though the African Union had voted to rehat the KDF as AMISOM, that was not enough because the AU doesn’t have money its own money to pay for AMISOM. It gets it from the UN and NATO. The UN blinked first. On the eve of the London conference, the UN Security Council voted to unanimously authorise an increase in the AMISOM force, 12,000 to about 17,700 and expand its areas of operation.

With the UN Security Council vote secured, Secretary General Ban ki-Moon could travel to London, comfortable in the knowledge that he would not be embarrassed by criticism that the organisation was dragging its feet on Somalia.

The morning after the conference, reports came from Kismayu that about eight boats had docked there and taken out 100 foreign Al Shabaab militants to Yemen. Whether that signalled that Kenya had started the final onslaught on the port city, now that the UN vote was in the bag, will soon be clear.

Days earlier, Kenya Defence officials had confided to a group of journalists in that Nairobi was planning to enter talks with the US to let it have some of the weapons from its Iraq deployment that recently ended. When late news came that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was travelling for the London conference, and that the usually reticent President Kibaki, who is not a great fan of travel to the UK was also going to the conference, speculation broke out that he and Clinton were to negotiate the “Iraq deal”.

For Clinton, President Barack Obama had taken care of a difficult matter in Somalia at the end of January. Militants inside Somalia had held an American aid worker, Jessica Buchanan, together and a Danish colleague, Poul Hagen Thisted, hostage since October 25, 2011.

Obama authorised an operation in which US Special Forces, the SEALS, stormed a hideout in which militants were holding the hostages, killed nine of them, and flew them out to safety in waiting helicopters.

The pictures of the London meeting, tell the story. The “high table”, and front row in the photos was given, in addition to British Prime Minister David Cameron, the regional power brokers in Somalia. Zenawi, Museveni, and Kibaki, the “big boys”, were always together to the right in the front. Nkurunziza was often in a row or two back – by fact of his shyness, not lack of clout on Somalia. And to the left edge, the leader of one of the newer members of AMISOM – Djibouti’s President Ismael Omar Guelleh.

In most of the photos, Museveni wears an arrogant bored look. It was his moment of vindication. But now, sources tell me that Museveni had been “coming under a lot of pressure from the British” over domestic events – his heavy-handedness, rank corruption, and possibly succession. “Events in Somalia”, my source said, “had bought Museveni some breathing space”.

In 2007, in an action that was both hailed and denounced as the move of a crazy despot, Museveni became the first African president to send troops into Somalia under the AMISOM hat. Burundi surprised even more when some months later, it also sent into a contingent. The price in lives for Burundi and Uganda’s troops has been high, but Museveni’s gamble has paid off.

Bigger and many times richer, continental powers like Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, remained frozen into inaction as Burundi stole glory. Little wonder than in the London photos, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, is not in the front row with the Museveni’s, Kibakis, and Zenawis. He is in the second. The lineup at the conference, gave a brief peek into how part of the present Africa power A-List looks like.

Questions remain though about when Kenya will take Kismayu, and whether the triumphantlism that kept peeping through at the London conference was justified. Kenyan military officials say yes.

First, they explain, quite a bit of the fighting against Al Shabaab in the areas where the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) has been, and lately around Kismayu, is being done by the Ahmed Madoobe-led Ras Kamboni Brigades.

Envisaging a long campaign, the KDF, the officers said, always sought to preserve itself and minimise casualties. The Ras Kamboni has partly made that possible, but also presented “a strong Somali face” to the Kenya campaign. But more revealing, the officers say that Kenya has “trained Ras Kamboni to be the most effective, and made it the largest, Somali militia”. The brigade, they say, has about 4,500 fighters – while Al Shabaab has about 3,500. Add to that over 4,000 KDF troops, and what one of them told me was “24-hour aerial surveillance over Kismayu and surrounding area”, and perhaps one understands why some KDF generals are smug.

The aerial eyes claim has been confirmed by the revelation to the media last week of the British-supplied surveillance aircraft the KDF has been using.

Part of the evidence KDF offers for the defeat of Al Shabaab is its recent announcement that it had joined Al Qaeda. “The media missed the significance of that”, an officer said. “What actually happened is that Al Shabaab closed shop. Why, when they were already part of Al Qaeda East Africa (AQEA), would they need to join again?”

His confidence was so high, he claimed that; “Kenya will take Kismayu while keeping our casualties since last October to under 50”. He added, half joking, that the “KDF will enter Kismayu with a marching band and ceremonial”. Nevertheless, we bet on it. My bet being that he is wrong.

[Parts of this article were first published in The East African]

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