Inside Kenya army’s war on al Shabaab in Somalia


Seven years after Kenya invaded Somalia to tame terror attacks in the Coast and Northeastern by al Shabaab, the army is still lodged in the country. The Kenya Defence Forces have had some ups and downs, but any plans to retreat are pegged back by unending volatility.

Our reporter Ramadhan Rajab visited the KDF operation base in Dhobley, Somalia, where he met Joakim Mwamburi. Mwamburi is the fourth brigade commander of Kenyan forces in Sector 2, southern Somalia. He speaks in a firm and persuasive voice, and was happy to answer our questions.

How far is this operation from victory and how will victory look like?

Victory will not be a one-off event. It will be seen when we hand over the security of the country to the SNA but still sleep soundly back home, knowing that Somali people are going on with their lives normally and all institutions of governance and the criminal justice system are functioning unhindered.

This is the reason we are not relenting in the fight until the threat, whether in Kenya or Somalia, is neutralised, and we bring this culture of violence that has been synonymous with Somalia to a lasting end.

What is the progress made so far?

We started under the code name Operation Linda Nchi on October 4, 2011. This was after constant al Shabaab interference in Kenya’s economy and affairs, including repeated grenade attacks, rampant piracy and kidnappings on the shores of Malindi and Lamu.

Operation Linda Nchi culminated in Operation Sledge Hammer, the capture of Kismayu, before the Kenyan army was absorbed into Amisom following a request by Africa nations through the AU. KDF then joined other countries to further pacify Sector 2, namely Burundi, Djibouti, Siera Leone and Uganda.

Gains so far include pacification of sector 2, clearance of main supply routes and degradation of al Shabaab. Since 2014, we have been building the capacity of the Somali National Army (SNA) and mentoring them through joint patrols, ambushes, escorts and raids. We are also supporting the local administration by identifying and training them to fill gaps in the provision of security and social services, such as education and medical service. So we give the people, especially the children of Somalia, hope.

We have supported repatriation of refugees since 2014; over 79000 have been voluntarily repatriated in Somalia. In January and March this year, we have heard 3,199 refuges destined to lower Juba, Kismayu Afmadow and Baidoa.

We have intensified our civilian-military cooperation. All our Forward Operations Bases conduct free medical camps in areas they occupy and organise community sports tournaments.

How was Somalia’s national and social fabric before you came here, and how is the rebuilding taking shape?

Upon our entry here, there was nothing worth talking about. Today specifically, speaking about Jubaland, where sector 2 is operating, the institutions are now being built even though at a slow pace because of funding, and the revenue from markets isn’t sufficient. The region needs capacity building and more support for faster reconstruction.

Sector 2, which is under the KDF, is termed the toughest, and Jubaland is where the Shabaab head resides. How long will it take to degrade it fully and why do they find it easy to operate in this region?

This enemy doesn’t have boundaries. It moves from sector 2 to 3 and back. It thrives here because of the vast terrain, heavy vegetation and poor infrastructure, in terms of roads. Because of the canopy, even our aerial assets are at times unable to pick them out, but we will endeavour to deal with them.

Nevertheless, our war is intelligence-led. This gives us precision on attacks and raids getting to the core of al Shabaab. At the moment, we have degraded them. They can’t put up a fight. They now engage in asymmetrical warfare, using improvised mobile control explosives to launch attacks. They have been degraded to a level that they can’t face any force or put a fight, and most are defecting to join rehabilitation facilities and be integrated back into the society.

There are parts in Sector 2 where al Shabaab still enjoys local support. Why is this so and what are you doing about it?

Al Shabaab operates within the populations and sometimes has exploited ungoverned spaces in those areas. But our civilian-military relations engagements are key to changing that support. We pacify an area then develop it by providing necessary services to the population, rendering al Shabaab ideology irrelevant.

The UN and international community in general expects Amisom troops to exit Somalia by 2020. Is the country read to fill this void?

Since the introduction of the UN resolution 23 of 72, we are actually on phase 1 of the drawdown of 1,000 Amisom soldiers, which was done in December, and a further 1,000-soldier drawdown is set for October this year.

Matters of transitions are 90 per cent security; the rest will fall in place. The political will is there. However, if I speak in the context of this region, Jubaland, where sector 2 is, support, in terms of kinetic and non-kinetic, is what is failing Jubaland institutions. They would like to recruit and train more equipped troops so they can take over. We urge international partners to try and assist. We should start from regional level as we go to national level. This is the only way we can achieve transition in the fastest way possible.

The clan dynamics is a hindrance to transition from a national level, where we see some regions marginalised by the national government itself over which clan is commanding which place. This clanism also plays out in recruitment of SNA soldiers.

For example, sector Kismayu has only 1,500 SNA soldiers, whereas sector 1 and sector 3 have almost 3,000 integrated and trained soldiers. So you find there are some gaps entrenched in the leadership of the nation, which requires further interrogation and probably further transparency. So there is acceptance that this nation can better be guided through strengthening regional governments then they merge at the top, than start from the top and expecting it to trickle down.

It will be detrimental. All our efforts and the blood we have spilt in this country will go down the drain in the event of the drawdown if the specifics are not addressed.

Specifics are the need to capacity build in terms of personnel and infrastructure of the security forces of Somalia, equipping the SNA with kinetic and non-kinetic support from partners and the UN, training and mentoring, and the rule of law is a must before we speak about drawdown.

Looking forward, we want capacity building of Somali forces, pacification of areas of operation and supporting locals with rebuilding their lives through civilian military activities. Then and only then can we talk of further drawdown and eventual exit of Amisom.

Is Kenya ready to move with the UN resolution and hand over security to SNA, so KDF can exit Somalia?

We are ready to exit Somalia anytime, but we need to build capacity of local forces to a level that we are sure SNA is ready to defend their country. In that, when we hand over the areas we are occupying, they are able to hold ground and not be pushed out the following day. We are ready to leave but with a caveat so the gains are not lost.

The SNA are upbeat in terms of recruitment and training, and we look forward to mentoring them so they are ready to take over by 2020. However, the October drawdown and the phase 2 that kicks in on January-June next year, we ask for its delay until the force they said will recruit 1,000 people in each region is ready to replace Amisom troops.

What will it take to rebuild a formidable SNA?

Issues of clan cannot be wished away. This is where the hurdle lies. Therefore, it will start by integrating clans in terms of where they are coming from, as it won’t work if integration starts from a national level. The integration, however, should start right from the district level then to the regions. Those units then can be merged at the top to form a national army.

How does it feel commanding sector 2, and what do you go through in this battlefield?

It is a challenging task. But I am well trained and have experience, from being a deputy sector commander and having commanded troops before. Therefore, I am up to the task. For me, it’s an honour to be carrying on this national duty.

Our brothers back home should know we face challenges and we don’t sleep to ensure they are safe because we love them and our motherland Kenya. That is the reason we are here. We look forward to coming home safe one day after we hand over the security of this country to the Somali National Army.

How does your ordinary day look like?

Always my day starts very early. I have to interact with all my commanders in mobile infantry unit (MIBs) in Busar, Afmadow, Kolbiyo and Kismayu to know how the night was, so I can give a brief to my boss.

How do you keep the morale of your troops up, especially after a loss like the killing of eight soldiers near Dhobley on May 6?

Immediately after a loss, you have to be there at the scene as a commander. Visit them, tell them yes it has happened, but we have to soldier on. Secondly, evacuation has to be swift. The wounded have to be evacuated within 20min. When it takes longer, it bogs down their morale.

Thirdly, you ensure that their welfare is well taken care of, talking to them after the attacks, have a session one-on-one with them to evaluate what went wrong and what we could have done differently to avoid the loss.

On matters of welfare, our soldiers normally go on leave for a week or two to rest and recoup. Above all, their allowances are paid on time.

In all our operation bases, we have religious services for both Muslims and Christians for spiritual nourishment, as well as counsellors to deal with anyone who shows signs of stress.

 You speak passionately about giving hope to children of Somali. Where do you draw this passion from?

Look at a child growing up in Somalia currently. What is their aspiration and what are they looking up to? Without giving them hope, they won’t have anything to look up to. By targeting schoolchildren with hope messages, we are targeting the engine that will help rebuild Somalia into a formidable nation. They will realise the mistakes their forefathers made so they don’t fall into the same pitfalls.

As Kenyans come together, build resources and come to help those we have liberated come up with projects, then and there we will see some fruits in the community, because this war can only be won through winning hearts and minds of the local populations.

How do you engage the locals and what do you intend to achieve?

In any area we have liberated, there are leaders and that’s where we start. Be it the chief, the DC or clan elders, we bring them together and engage them before we engage the population, and they tell us what they need most in terms of education, health and others issues through civilian-military initiatives. We also identify the key issues affecting the locals and how we can come in. This is to make sure there is no relapse or room for al Shabaab to come and exploit, and to boost relationships, which is good in information sharing.



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