It has been more than four years since the Kenyan Defence Force (KDF) crossed the border into Somalia, and Kenyans are entitled to ask what exactly their troops are still doing there.
The official rationale is no longer entirely convincing. The original purpose of the military intervention was to insulate the country from the conflict in Somalia.
‘Kenya has been and remains an island of peace, and we shall not allow criminals from Somalia, which has been fighting for over two decades, to destabilise our peace,’ said George Saitoti, the internal security minister at the time.
It is debatable whether that aim has been achieved. Although Operation Linda Nchi (‘Protect the Nation’) curtailed the operations of al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for dozens of incidents on Kenyan soil in recent years. This includes the high-profile attacks on Westgate Mall and Garissa University.
It didn’t take long for Kenya’s unilateral involvement to be absorbed into (and retrospectively legitimised by) the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). This gave the KDF a more defined mandate: to root out al-Shabaab and support Somalia’s internationally recognised government based in Mogadishu (known now as the Federal Government of Somalia, or FSG).
This has not been a resounding success either. Although Kenya enjoyed a succession of high-profile victories against al-Shabaab – most notably when it pushed the extremist group out of its de facto headquarters in Kismayo – progress has stalled in recent years. Al-Shabaab remains in control of significant chunks of territory, while the FSG still struggles to assert its authority without the backing of AMISOM troops.
Kenyan officials can and do argue that despite the lack of obvious movement, Kenya’s presence in Somalia remains significant: without it, Somalia would revert to chaos and Kenya would be less safe as a result.
They might be right, but a new report written by researcher Ben Rawlence for Journalists for Justice suggests another, less noble explanation. The report examines the illegal trade in sugar and charcoal, and finds that senior KDF figures are involved in both. Even worse, in doing so they are collaborating with al-Shabaab, and providing the militant group with a vital source of revenue.
The United Nations sanction committee prohibited the export of charcoal from Somalia because it was such an important revenue source for al-Shabaab. Sugar is heavily taxed in Kenya, which means there are huge margins to be made on illegal imports.
‘The Kenya Defence Forces, rather than taking the fight to al-Shabaab, are actually in garrison mode, sitting in bases while senior commanders are engaged in corrupt business practices with the Jubaland administration and al-Shabaab,’ said the report.
Here’s how it works, allegedly: ships laden with sugar enter the port of Kismayo, and leave it with a cargo of coal. The KDF levies a US$2 tax on every bag of sugar, while al-Shabaab collects US$1 050 per truck that departs the port. Each truck is taxed again on its way through Somalia by the Jubaland administration (Jubaland is a semi-autonomous region of Somalia), and then again by other KDF elements as it crosses the Kenyan border. For charcoal, the same process operates in reverse.
It’s big business. This illegal trade brings in tens of millions of dollars per year for the KDF elements involved, while al-Shabaab takes home more than US$100 million from charcoal alone. ‘The charcoal trade is not some kind of illicit hobby for KDF officers stationed in Kismayo to earn some pocket money. Together with the import of sugar, it is in fact, the main reason they are there,’ said the report.
The implications are staggering. Not only are Kenyan soldiers profiting from the Somali conflict, they are helping their enemy do the same – the very enemy that funds terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil. It makes a mockery of the entire regional effort to combat al-Shabaab. Further, it raises questions about how much the Kenyan government really knows about what its military is up to. It is damning either way: either the politicians are colluding, or they have no control.
If this report is true, then Kenya’s intervention in Somalia is nothing more than a criminal enterprise, a perfect example of the intersection between organised crime and politics, with an added twist: all its running costs are paid for by the international donors that fund AMISOM.
Naturally, an outraged KDF has been quick to deny the contents of the report. ‘Those releasing the report can say whatever they want. They have said it many times. KDF is not involved in the charcoal or sugar business. Those who allege to have done investigations must appreciate that the Somali coastline is 3 300 kilometres long and that KDF is only deployed on a 150-kilometre stretch. Somali authorities themselves appreciate that there are so many makeshift ports that are not policed,’ said Colonel David Obonyo, a KDF spokesperson.
The credibility of the Kenyan army spokesmen is at an all-time low, however, following a series of other allegations into corrupt practices (most notably the claims that recruiting officers demand bribes from new recruits). Besides, the damage is already done.
A senior source told ISS Today that the report stains not only the image of the KDF, but of the AU itself, raising questions about the AU’s ability to maintain effective command, control and oversight of the troops operating under its banner in Somalia. The source said that if the AU fails to act, there is an immediate risk of AMISOM drifting further out of control and morphing into a de facto criminal syndicate in Somalia.
Peter Aling’o, a senior researcher and the Nairobi office head of the Institute of Security Studies, said that such concerns are valid. ‘Kenya has vowed to stay put in Somalia despite these allegations. This notwithstanding, the allegations of involvement in a sugar and charcoal smuggling racket obviously dents the KDF’s reputation and certainly has a negative impact on the broader AMISOM operations in Somalia. I believe that the information available significantly undermines KDF and AMISOM operations in Somalia,’ he said.
Simon Allison is an ISS Consultant.