On September 24, Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union (ICU) moved further south and took control of the port city of Kismayo near the Kenyan border. With the Islamist movement moving closer to Kenya, public debate in the country is raging. The Kenyan press has warned the government to tread carefully now that the ICU is approaching its eastern border. Consensus has grown in Kenya that the government, which many consider the only neutral player in the crisis, should be concerned only with protecting its borders and should not take sides in the conflict. This concern stems from the fact that in each instance when the crisis in Somalia has flared, Kenya has been flooded with Somali refugees streaming across the border. This year alone, Kenyan media reports that about 25,000 refugees have fled Somalia into Kenya (Daily Nation, September 28). In addition to having to settle these refugees, there is also a genuine security concern that radical elements could filter from Somalia into Kenya. The Kenyan government has warned Somali actors not to attempt to smuggle weapons across the border into Kenya, and there is also concern that foreign terrorist elements could use the refugee flow to smuggle operatives and military supplies into Kenya in order to conduct attacks against Western interests there.
In a September 27 editorial, the Kenya Times warns that Kenya was caught off-guard by the ICU’s advance in Somalia, arguing that “instability spanning 15 years has wrought insecurity inside Kenya while continuously unleashing refugees over the same period.” The editorial further states that although Somalia is Kenya’s neighbor, a hands-off policy may be the best option for Nairobi’s foreign policy at the moment, warning that Somalia is a “hot coal” as a result of the complicated regional and international interests involved. It concludes that the Islamists are prepared for more war and conflict, outlining a list of weapons at their disposal. The editorial cites sources in the United Nations that state that the Islamists have stocked up on anti-aircraft ammunition, anti-tank ammunition, anti-armor weapons, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, remote-controlled bombs, anti-personnel mines and small-arms such as AK-47 assault rifles.
Similarly, the September 26 editorial in the regional weekly The East African warns the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to move cautiously in Somalia. The editorial articulates that careful leverage by IGAD can prevent a regional war, where a lack of leverage could increase the risk of regional instability. IGAD is bent on sending a peacekeeping force to Somalia, but the ongoing conflict in the country makes such a peacekeeping force unlikely under the current circumstances. The editorial advises IGAD to discard the notion of trying to confront the Islamists with peacekeepers at this time and to cease trying to install into power the unpopular Transitional Federal Government that is based in Baidoa. “They [the peacekeepers] will run into a popular insurrection worse than that happening in Iraq today,” says the editorial. The editorial also sees a further challenge in that none of the IGAD countries promising troops for Somalia have the military capacity or the resources to deal with a protracted uprising. According to the editorial, from the outset IGAD has approached the ICU as if it were the biggest threat to peace, when in reality the biggest threat to peace in the region is a protracted popular insurrection led by the Islamists.
Generally, the Kenyan press sees the Islamists as enjoying wide acceptance and respect within Somalia, and they are viewed as vanguards against Western influence. The media has generally viewed Ethiopia negatively in the conflict, arguing that it has only created a sense of paranoia among the Somali people and is seen as the force responsible for the country’s anarchy (East African Standard, September 14). This is viewed as the main reason why there cannot be a substantive power-sharing deal between the ICU and the TFG, since the TFG is largely propped up by Ethiopia.
With the complex political situation in Somalia, general attitudes in Kenya are that the country must prevent itself from being sucked into its neighbor’s crisis; it can attempt to broker peace in Somalia, but taking sides in the unstable political situation there will do more harm than good. At the moment, the peace and tranquility that Kenya has recently enjoyed is at risk.