Kenya’s Somali proxies

November 7, 2011 (ION) – Kenya’s confusion over its war aims proceeds in part from deep divisions within the elites and the fact that key actors support different Somali forces who have nothing in common except opposition to Al Shabaab. The involvement of surrogate forces of Somalis from Kenya or Somalia proper is often overlooked but is massive. The Kenyan military and intelligence agencies started building them up after Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed took over Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government in February 2009. Two are prominent today.

The first is led by Ahmed Mohamed Islaan ‘Madobe’ who took over most of the Ras Kamboni Islamist group from its historic leader, Hasan Abdallah Hirsi ‘al Turki’, in October 2009 after a row over a deal with Al Shabaab on who would rule Kismayo. Ras Kamboni and its two contending leaders belong to the Mohamed Zubeir sub-group of the Ogaden clan and though many of its commanders are Islamists, clan politics is the driving force. After November 2009, Al Shabaab inflicted a severe military defeat on the group and it settled on the Kenyan border until March 2011 when, with strong Kenyan support, it was able to reach Dhobley and carve out an area of control inside Somalia. This group is important to the Kenyan army’s move on the coast.

The second group is led by the Mohamed Abdi Mohamed ‘Gandhi’, a Somali French citizen well respected in Somali civil society, who aspires to be leader of the Juba Valley and started the training of Somali militias by Kenya when he was TFG Defence Minister after February 2009. Initially, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed supported the idea but he changed his mind. After relations deteriorated, Sharif sacked Gandhi last November. In April, Gandhi became President of ‘Azania’ (Jubaland), after ‘liberating’ a small area from Al Shabaab with Kenyan help.

Ahmed Madobe leads a group of trained fighters but his clan outlook is very limited and his own background could rule out collaboration with the TFG. Moreover, his sub-clan has strong ambitions to rule Jubaland that clash with the objectives of other sections of his own Ogaden clan. The group is not well organised and some observers even suspect it of being the source of the foreigners’ kidnappers.
Gandhi now relies on a coalition, the backbone of which is three groups: Dabare militias (whose clan is far from the combat area and not a major Rahanweyn clan); Marehan from Gedo (not to be confused with Marehan from the Central Region who had settled in Gedo because of the civil war and are politically closer to Ethiopia); and the biggest group, Awlihan/Ogaden, Jubaland’s most numerous Ogaden sub-clan. The group’s main weakness is that it has no military leader: Gandhi has no military background and since he belongs to a very small clan, the Tolomoge/Ogaden, he has no interest in promoting a military leader from a bigger sub-clan in case it ends in a challenge for the overall leadership.

Kenyan ethnic politics also play an important role. Madobe has the support of many Kenyan Somali army officers while Gandhi is closer to the Kenyan intelligence bodies and politicians such as Defence Minister Mohamed Yusuf Haji. He also finds support from the head of the Muslim caucus in the Kenyan Parliament, Bare Aden Duale, a key Orange Democratic Movement member and a relative of the former Chief of Staff, General Mamoud Mohamed. All are Tolomoge.

This network of Kenyan alliances makes it easy to see why the TFG President and many other Somali politicians are uneasy about the Kenyan operation. Jubaland used to be controlled by Ogaden and Marehan in the final years of President Mohamed Siad Barre before 1991.

In the 20 years since then, other groups came to prominence: Harti, Hawiye, Dir and Rahanweyn. While their claims may be questionable, there is no doubt that they will never go back to the status quo of Siad Barre’s days, especially if it were enforced by a foreign army.

Sheikh Sharif fought against Ethiopia when it invaded and he knows that whatever credibility is left to him would vanish if he were to endorse a foreign intervention, especially one that marginalised his most important constituency. Nor could he ever countenance giving politicians like Gandhi and Madobe – who happen to have scores to settle with him as it is – the chance of building a power base.