Last October, Kenyan troops poured in southern Somalia, the navy put a blockade to the port of Kismayu, with the air force striking at targets linked to Al-Shabaab, a Islamic fundamentalist group controlling part of the country. The military adventure is a novelty for Kenya. Kenyan soldiers took part in some international peace missions but they have never being deployed in war. The government, facing troubles from the eastern neighbour, decided to play the military card after Al-Shabaab militants made a few raids in Kenya. The operation called Linda Nchi (protect the nation in Swahili) is, however, something more than a security exercise.
Somalia has been without a government for two decades. The country broke into three areas: Somaliland – former British Somalia – declared independence and is receiving international support. Puntland sees itself autonomous yet still part of Somalia. The centre-southern part of the country is, in theory, controlled by a transitional government headed by Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. In reality, this government controls only a few sections of the capital, Mogadishu, and the coastal region. Most of the countryside is controlled by militias. Among them is Al-Shabaab which lost Mogadishu but remains firmly in control of most of the South and of key ports, like Kismayu. From its bases, Al-Shabaab has launched a few raids in Kenyan territory, kidnapping some tourists and asking for ransoms.
The Kenyan military has the personnel, the weaponry and the technical support to bring this operation to completion. Al-Shabaab is now under attack from all sides and there is evidence of USA and European involvement both in data sharing and aerial combat. The question is what to do once the rifles are silent. Al-Shabaab is not a regular army. Its fighter can blend in with the local population and regroup at will. They have now lost control of the ports, which generated most of the group’s income through smuggling. Yet, Al-Shabaab can go on fighting thanks to low tech weapons and supplies sent in by air from Eritrea, which supports the fundamentalist group. Besides, Al-Shabaab supporters are found also in Kenya, which has a large Somali population, and they can easily export the conflict to Nairobi or Mombasa. Indeed, in the past weeks there have been scattered attacks in Nairobi and Wajir.
The solution to the problem is not in fighting a war, but in finding a long term answer to Somalia’s crisis; answer that is eluding the political world in the Horn of Africa. Somalia today is a battleground not only for a myriad of armies. There are many financial and geo-political interests to take in account. The USA is monitoring the area in its war against terror, and because Somalia controls one of the most important waterways in the world. France has shown interest in controlling at least southern Somalia, where there are good prospects to find offshore oil fields. President Sarkozy supports Mohamed Abdi Gandhi who wants to set up the south as an autonomous region within Somalia. This region should take the name of Azania. Kenyan security services seem to favour this solution, which is not liked by Ethiopia. The giant neighbour is extremely nervous. Most of the people in Azania would be of the Ogden clan, which never hid the plan to unite with the Ethiopian Ogdeni and form a Greater Somalia. Needless to say, the transitional government is not open to solutions that would break up even more an already divided nation.
Unfortunately, Somalia is not capable to stir the course of its own future. Each neighbouring country has its agenda, and Somali territory has become a fertile ground for war by proxy. There are also other interests. Piracy generates million of dollars. Some ports are used to market weapons beyond international control. Khat, a hallucinogen plant, is imported from Kenya and distributed within Somalia and abroad, it also generates millions in revenues. Fishing and oil exploration rights are also to be put in the equation. All these areas are controlled by a small and well guarded group of people, and do not benefit the population. Somali are now tossed from one interest group to the other, unable to express what they desire for themselves and their future.
In this complex situation, the African Union has shown great ability in keeping aloof, and passed the bucket to the UN. Once again, the Somali will have to put up with choices made elsewhere. Bishop Giorgio Bertin, Apostolic Administrator of Mogadishu, is perplexed of the latest military campaign. “The past teaches – says he – that these adventures do solve the situation of anarchy, but also become problematic in time”. The great financial interests linked to Somalia show the importance of this country, Kenya’s involvement is justified. The risk, if not the certitude, is that the choices for Somalia’s future will serve those who are not Somali, and will do little to lessen the insecurity people have to put up with.