MWANGI: Somalia: Why East Africa could pay dearly for Trump’s order


News that United States President Donald Trump has given orders that will see increased airstrikes in Somalia received scant attention in the region, yet this decision is likely to have a profound effect on peace and security in the region.

No doubt, Trump’s decision was motivated by a desire to crush the Al Shabaab militia that has been a thorn in the flesh for the US and its allies in the region. Previous attempts to fight the rise of Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa nation have come to naught. Since the overthrow of the late president Mohammed Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, numerous attempts at a peaceful resolution of the internecine conflict in Somalia have failed.

But that failure has also been the handiwork of forces external to Somalia. The Islamic Courts Union, for example, had largely stabilized large sections of the country. However, it was still unacceptable to the US, and its policy of a “Greater Somalia” of course rattled the country’s traditional arch-enemy, Ethiopia. In the end, the latter sent troops to overthrow the new regime, leading to increased mayhem and the birth of Al Shabaab.

More recent attempts to restore peace have involved using troops under the United Nations-sponsored African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Three East African countries – Kenya, Uganda and Burundi – have contributed troops to the Amisom force. All three have also paid a heavy price as their troops come under attack from the Al Shabaab militia and foreign jihadist fighters, even though Kenya has borne the brunt of these attacks. This is partly because Kenya shares a long porous border with the lawless country.

Ethiopia, which also has troops serving with Amisom,  has always sought to have a weak and friendly regime in Mogadishu that would steer clear of ambitions for a Greater Somalia. The two countries have time and again disputed over Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, which is inhabited by Somalis. Kenya, to a lesser extent, has had similar problems regarding its northeastern counties that are inhabited by the Somali community.

But it is the growth of Islamic radicalism – taking advantage of the lawlessness in Somalia – that has caused the greatest worry to the international community. Collaboration between Al Shabaab and other radical groups such as Al Qaeda and Boko Haram has long been suspected. And that is where the United States and other Western powers come in – since it is their avowed aim to destroy all forms of Islamic radicalism so as to protect their own populations back home.

Yet, considering the security measures put in place in Western countries, it is never easy for the West’s avowed enemies to launch attacks in the US and Europe. That anger is therefore directed elsewhere – principally at the allies of Western powers in Africa and elsewhere. East Africa has in this regard suffered frequent and indiscriminate attacks against its soldiers, civilians and other installations.

Essentially, then, the war against Al Shabaab is a continuation of international competition between the Western Christian and Arab Islamic models that has turned violent. The Western approach of military conquest in other places such as Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan has only served to create greater militancy, in addition to the widespread suffering of civilian populations. But the West never seems to learn the lesson that violence can only beget more violence – especially when military superiority is used to steal other people’s natural resources and impose Western values and worldview on everyone else.

An escalation through increased airstrikes in Somalia could prove extremely costly for East Africa. Higher civilian casualties could further swing public opinion in Somalia and the region against AMISOM forces, who are often seen as an occupation force. Indeed, the logic of Kenya and Ethiopia having troops there has previously been questioned, since the deployment goes against the United Nation’s own regulations prohibiting neighbouring countries from contributing troops.

In the same manner that the scuttling of the Islamic Courts Union created the greater mayhem that we are witnessing today, it will be interesting to see the potentially deadly radicalization and effects that Trump’s order will have. East Africans certainly have little say in such decisions; as usual, however, they will bear the brunt of that decision. And going by the silence, they seem nonchalant – for now at least, or until the effects of a deteriorated security situation strike home.

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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