FOREIGN RELATIONS: Increasingly difficult to remain neutral over Somalia
By Matthew Green
Published: June 13 2007 10:41 | Last updated: June 13 2007 10:41
The palm-fringed beaches and lounging lions gracing Kenya’s tourist brochures could hardly present a greater contrast to scenes of gunmen careering around in pick-up trucks, fleeing families and blasted buildings familiar from neighbouring Somalia.
But Kenya has shouldered the burden of living next door to the world’s most failed state for years, struggling to cope with thousands of refugees, a proliferation of guns and terrorist attacks blamed on al-Qaeda suspects exploiting the chaos across the border.
Fears that Somalia’s troubles will weigh even more heavily on Kenya have increased since Ethiopia invaded late last year to oust a coalition of Islamists, leading to the heaviest fighting in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in 15 years. About 34,000 Somali refugees trekked into Kenya last year, the biggest number since 1991 when the fall of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre triggered an influx of more than 400,000. Kenya sealed the border in January, stranding thousands and irking aid workers.
But perhaps more significantly for Kenya, the latest round of conflict has pushed the government into an increasingly visible role in the US “war on terror,” inflaming sentiment among the country’s Muslim minority ahead of elections due later this year. By helping to secretly “render” suspected Somali militants to Ethiopian prisons for interrogation by US agents, Kenya may also have jeopardised its status as a neutral mediator won during years of patient diplomacy among Somalia’s warring clans.
“It is arguable that Nairobi, among all the players, has suffered the greatest losses to its position,” Somalia expert Michael A Weinstein wrote in the April edition of the Power and Interest News Report. “Its decision to co-operate with Washington and Addis Ababa has destroyed its credibility as an honest broker.”
Somalia has been a troublesome neighbour since at least the 1960s when Kenyan security forces fought the “Shifta War” against secessionists from Kenya’s ethnic Somali minority, a conflict that further entrenched a deep-seated prejudice among many in Nairobi.
“There’s this blanket intolerance of Somalis,” says Emmanuel Nyabera, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency in the capital. “Whenever there is insecurity, refugees are blamed.”
Guns trickling in from Somalia, as well as from conflicts in neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda, have fuelled Nairobi’s high rates of carjacking and robbery. Jemdayi Frazer, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in March that Somalia continues to harbour terrorists, including three suspected senior members of al-Qaeda.
Washington accuses the network of organising truck bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people in 1998. The group has also been blamed for a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel on the Kenyan coast in 2002 within minutes of a botched attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa. Kenyan and US investigators have linked the attacks to Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a suspected member of al-Qaeda from the Comoros islands who is believed to have used Somalia as a base for training operatives and shipping weapons into Kenya.
Both the 1998 and 2002 attacks punished Kenya’s tourist industry, a big source of foreign exchange, while fears of more bombings have prompted the US and Britain to issue repeated warnings over travel to Kenya, a constant source of chagrin to hoteliers. Seeking to mitigate Somalia’s impact on its security and economy, Kenya has hosted successive attempts to help rival clans form a unified administration.
Somali elders eventually created an interim government, which Ethiopia and the US see as a bulwark against Islamist influence. Many hoped the new leaders would preside over a wider reconciliation process after Ethiopian troops pushed the Islamists from Mogadishu at Christmas. Instead, bodies piled up in the streets as Ethiopian troops fought street battles with the interim government’s opponents, bombarding residential areas and killing hundreds of civilians.
Kenya has found it increasingly difficult to remain neutral. The government sent troops to help round up defeated Islamists along its border after the Ethiopian invasion, while US air strikes on sites near the frontier only reinforced a perception among Kenyan Muslims that their government was working chiefly at Washington’s behest.
A report issued by Human Rights Watch accusing Kenya of helping the US spirit dozens of Somalis into arbitrary detention in Ethiopia further enflamed sentiment among Kenya’s Muslims, who account for perhaps 7 to 15 per cent of the population. Analysts say events in Somalia are likely to amplify a long-standing feeling of marginalisation among this community. “You see this international conflict in Somalia having an impact on national politics in this country,” says Mohamed Ali, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi.
“The Muslim communities are becoming more vocal and it will continue that way.”