NAIROBI -- Watchmen are part of the scenery on the streets of Kenya's capital. They stand in front of banks and supermarkets – they even protect stores selling mobile phones from possible heists. Since this past weekend, however, these informal security guards in Kenya's capital are now being joined by their official counterparts: police officers, lots of them, patrolling the inner city in uniform. The word is that there are plenty of plain-clothes operatives in the mix as well.
The heightened security aims not only to prevent hold-ups but also outright attacks. Because since this past weekend, Kenya has been at war. Commonplace in Africa as a whole, war is not, however, something normal for Kenya. This is in fact the first armed conflict the country has engaged in since it gained its independence 48 years ago.
The enemy is the Islamist al-Shabab militia that controls large portions of neighboring Somalia, and has ties to al-Qaeda. Al-Shabab is threatening attacks in Kenya. Kenyan soldiers would come to "regret" having moved into Somali territory, a spokesman for the group said. Decades of peace in Kenya will be jeopardized, insists al-Shabab, if Kenyan soldiers don't leave Somalia at once.
The official reason that Kenya's army – with the approval of the Somali transition government – has moved over 100 kilometers into Somalia is the recent hostage-taking in Kenya. There have been several cases, all foreigners nabbed on Kenyan soil and taken to Somalia. Nairobi suspects that the al-Shabab militia lie behind the abductions. The group denies responsibility.
"Our territorial integrity is being threatened by terrorists," said George Saitoti, Kenya's Interior Minister, as military action got underway. "We will pursue the enemy – the al-Shabab militia – wherever they go." Presently, tanks and air strikes along with an undisclosed number of soldiers are being used in the operation. In Kenya, meanwhile, police are asking the population to report "suspicious persons" by calling a special hot line.
Kenyan military officials report that five Somali cities have already been taken, and 75 members of al-Shabab killed. So far Kenya has lost five soldiers, who died in a helicopter crash.
Unofficial sources claim the abductions are not the only reason for the intervention. Kenya, these sources say, had long been planning to set up a kind of security zone on Somali territory where refugee camps can be built to stop any further influx into Kenya of Somalis fleeing hunger and war.
Security problems at Dadaab camp
What is described as the largest refugee camp in the world, in which more than half a million people live, lies just outside the city of Dadaab in Kenya. Nairobi has long considered the camp a security problem, and feared that it could provide Islamist terrorists a foothold in Kenya.
Ten suspected terrorists were recently arrested at the camp. And along the border with Somalia, there have in the past been frequent assaults on Kenyans (some of whom have been murdered) that Kenyan authorities ascribe to al-Shabab. The militia is also accused of trying to recruit members among young Kenyans.
The official reason for the war, the hostage-taking crisis, began a week ago, when two Spanish aid workers with Doctors Without Borders were abducted at the Dabaab camp and allegedly taken to Somalia.
The Kenyan military says it has some leads as to where the two workers are. Doctors Without Borders, an international aid group, expressed deep concern for their welfare, and warned that use of force could endanger their safe release. Two weeks before the aid workers were taken, two European tourists, both women, were taken hostage on islands just off the coast of Kenya.
One of them, a French woman, has since died in captivity. Her death was confirmed by the French government on Wednesday. The 66-year-old had lived on Lamu Island for over 10 years. The other tourist, a British woman, is still missing. Her husband was shot as they were being abducted. The incidents have had an extremely damaging effect on tourism in Kenya.
Somalia's transition government is on board
The Kenyan government is releasing very little information about its military incursion. However, it has made it clear that the march into Somalia was undertaken with the approval of the Somali transition government. Kenya's foreign and defense ministers both met with the Somali president in Mogadishu, where a decision was taken to stamp out the al-Shabab militia.
The army of Somalia's transitional government is perceived as weak, and has in the past been supported by the Kenyan army to train its soldiers. After the meeting in Mogadishu between Kenyan and Somali officials, there was a suicide attack near the venue that left several people dead.
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki has yet to make a direct statement with regard to the military action, although a press release issued after a recent cabinet meeting stated that it had "the important task of protecting the Kenyan nation." The action has met with no opposition in Kenya, and the archbishop of Mombasa, Boniface Lele, openly supported the military action saying: "We have a responsibility to defend ourselves."
Many Kenyans share that view, even if there is heavy skepticism about the outcome of the military operation. It is presently unclear how many Kenyan soldiers will stay in Somalia, or for how long -- and if they are indeed up to the challenges of fighting such a war. Another open question is whether the country can afford it, in face of a marked recent slowdown in economic growth in Kenya.
Uganda, Kenya's neighbor, found out in 2010 what it was like to get on the wrong side of al-Shabab when its army was providing support to the Somali government. More than 70 people died in a bomb attack in the capital of Kampala. An al-Shabab spokesman said at the time: "That's the best news we've ever heard."
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