“I just love your top.” It was a perfectly normal statement, woman to woman, said to me in passing as I was walking into Nairobi’s Southern Sun Hotel for a press conference. The only difference was, the woman telling me how much she liked my blouse was also a security guard, patting me down in all the wrong (or right) places, checking my bag, and scanning me with a Garret hand-held body screener.
Such is life in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, today. Awkward, idle chit-chat and corny jokes made as someone pats you down to make sure you aren’t coming onto the premises to blow yourself and others up. In the past three months since I moved here to head up the eNews East Africa Bureau, life in Kenya has changed quite dramatically.
The important parts haven’t changed though. People are still pleasant, still happy, the traffic is still awful and the food is still delicious. Children go to school, Mums and Dads go to work and the currency is still fairly stable. (Forgive me, I am from Zimbabwe, anything that isn’t triple-figure inflation doesn’t scare me.) On any given night there are a hundred parties, ranging from the diplomatic circles, to karaoke and salsa clubs (something gleaned in two months, Kenyans love to karaoke and salsa) to high-brow conversations teamed with cheap wine, at Foreign Correspondent Association gatherings.
Life is just a little edgier now.
That’s because on 24 October, at least one attacker threw grenades into a crowded bar at 2am in the morning and a bus terminal during rush hour later that day, killing one person and injuring scores.
Nairobi went into lockdown. Police flooded the streets, stopping and searching anyone with a bag or who looked vaguely Somali. (There are hundreds of thousands of Somali Kenyans here so that is keeping them busy.) From that day, cab drivers have stopped being allowed into many of the hotels and office complexes. If they are allowed in, they are thoroughly scanned for weapons and a man with a mirror on the end of a stick walks around the vehicle, checking underneath, presumably for explosives.
Buses and Matatus (Kenya’s version of taxis) are stopped and searched. Passengers were forced off and asked for their identification. If you walk into a mall, or restaurant or half-decent hotel, body and bag searches became as normal as paying for parking. People queue patiently outside various five-star establishments patiently, scrutinising the people around them, wondering if he or she could possibly be the dreaded bad guy.
All this because Kenya is now at war with Al Shabaab, Somalia’s militant Islamic insurgent group, and why that is has been described to me more than once by intelligence and military officials as “a series of unfortunate, although not all that surprising, events”.
First, a British tourist and her husband are attacked by suspected Somali pirates in the luxurious Lamu archipelago. Judith Tebbutt’s husband is shot dead, and she is kidnapped, whisked off on a boat with armed men and taken about 55km north to Somalia. Weeks later, another French tourist, Marie Dideau, is kidnapped in a similar fashion from the same island paradise.
Kenya, and the world, is shocked. Somalia for a long time had been the bad boy of the East. Kidnappings in the Gulf of Aden, were common, in fact two South Africans are still being held by pirates after their yacht was attacked. But it had never happened in Kenya. And after the fact, everyone was amazed at the ease at which it happened. It took authorities a long time to react; the Kenyan Navy, with its base just across the bay, reportedly didn’t even have a working boat out on patrol that night. It was as though Kenya had been asleep throughout the piracy attacks, thinking that the pirates would never, ever dare stray into their territory.
And yet, weeks later, it happened again, but nowehere near water. At the height of Somalia’s famine, thousands of refugees were pouring over the border into the largest refugee camp in the world in Dadaab. Two Spanish Medicins Sans Frontieres aid workers were working at a local refugee hospital, when they were abducted and dragged across the border into Somalia. And then, the sleeping giant woke up.
It was a Sunday morning, and in an effort to be diligent I was checking out the local papers when I noticed that all the headlines were about Kenya going to war in Somalia. The Daily Nation had already dubbed it “Kenya’s War on Terror”. I rubbed my eyes a few times, then googled whether or not Kenya had ever gone into another country before. I was so o shocked, that I eventually had to call another correspondent from a rival TV organisation to find out if this was, well, a normal occurrence in Kenya. I was relieved that he was as blown away as I was.
After the kidnappings, Kenya and its security forces had invoked article 51 of the UN Security Council charter, and taken its troops across the border “in hot pursuit” of the kidnappers into Somalia in “self-defense”. Nicknamed in Swahili “Operation Linda Nchi”, meaning “protect our country”, a few thousand Kenyan troops had launched the military operation.
Kenya’s Prime Minister, Raila Odinga, was quoted at a news conference saying: “The cost of inaction will be much higher than the cost of acting now. And we have said that we have a responsibility to protect our people, to protect our country; that is why our troops are there.”
The operation has been confusing from the start. Initially, Somalia (or at least its ambassador in Nairobi) welcomed the Kenyan initiative to crush Al Shabaab. But less than a week later, Somalia’s president Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed expressed his disdain for the operation, hinting that Somalia is a sovereign nation and it didn’t approve of Kenyan troops leading what should have been a Somali government initiative. Eventually the prime ministers of the two nations presented a united front. Somalia’s Prime Minister, Abdiweli Mohamed, told the world: “This is not Shabaab, is not a Somali phenomenon, is not a regional problem, it is a global problem.”
But history dictates that launching a military operation into Somalia is not easy. The US learned that the hard way, as did Ethiopia.
And so we waited. And waited. The Kenyan Defence Force began its pro-war, pro-military public relations campaign, putting out a daily dispatch of its victories. Al Shabaab fighters killed here, this town seized, these alleged pirates killed, their boats sunk.
But then things went very quiet. The military attacked Al Shabaab in the centre of Somalia and down its coastline. But due to heavy rains and the lack of roads in Somalia, Kenya’s tank-heavy infantry was holed up in mud for weeks. Aerial bombardments of so-called Shabaab strongholds were mostly successful, according to the KDF; however, aid agencies complained of civilian casualties when at least one bomb went awry and hit an Internally Displaced Persons camp. At least five people were killed and dozens of women and children injured.
Reporting from Somalia is like reporting on a black hole. You never really know what is going on inside. And people in Nairobi, especially the foreigners stationed there for work, just love to talk about Somalia. It is intriguing, like a puzzle that cannot be solved, and one that you cannot even see. People will tell you what is going on, but you always have to ask yourself if they are telling the truth and what their agenda is. In Nairobi, you can tell just by how a person is dressed what group they belong to, and what their thoughts on Somalia might be. For example, in a restaurant, the women in long skirts, with lots of bracelets and hair that looks like it hasn’t seen a blow-dryer since they landed in Africa are the NGO crowd. They will tell you that the situation in Somalia is the direst of dire, and that humanitarian assistance is urgently needed.
Then there are the private-security-contractor crowd (a less police term for them would be mercenaries). They wear the baggy cargo pants and baggy-collared, sleeved shirts that suggest perhaps they are carrying a weapon in the back of their trousers. Some have tattoos from their days enlisted in whatever military branch of whatever country they hail from, and many of them smoke. Finally, there are the embassy people, usually well dressed with a slight air of arrogance. They can be determined by the language they are all speaking (most who are linguistically similar tend to flock together), and the accents. The embassies will usually be a little more careful about what they tell you, especially if they figure out you are a journalist, and let’s face it, we are easily spotted as we are usually just the badly dressed, poorest ones at the venue.
More and more attention is now being focused on Kenya’s war on Al Shabaab. Suddenly, Israel is “consulting” with both Kenya’s war with Somalia and on their homeland security. Israel’s ambassador to Kenya Gil Haskel told me in an interview that Nairobi will likely need to step up its game. He said “harsh measures are needed to protect cities from terrorism threats. You know in Israel, every cafe, in a manner that does not disrupt day-to-day life, in a manner that people will not see that it is not protected. Buses are protected. I think measures definitely need to be taken within Nairobi in order for people to feel more protected.” Given that it took my cameraman and I more than an hour to get into the Israeli embassy with the security checks, questions, scans, re-scans, frisking, turning off and on of cameras, I am worried I may have to get to a mall at 5am to do some decent shopping in the future.
Ethiopia is now reportedly joining in the fight. If it comes at Al Shabaab from the West, according to military sources, it will allow Kenya to focus its attention on the coastline (and the pirates) and on the centre of Somalia.
Kenya’s parliament has now voted that its troops should join the AU-led peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu, Amison. This will alleviate the heavy burden on parliament’s pocket, an important vote-winning, heart-and-mind winning tactic with national elections just around the corner in 2012. But Amisom has had some heavy losses in recent years, and Al Shabaab, with its trench-style, urban terrorism, continues to terrorise its troops.
Will Kenya have any luck in doing what so many other countries have failed to do in Somalia? And at what price? Bomb attacks in Wajir and Garissa counties on government troops, police officers and churches happen nearly every day. The Somali-Kenya border is so porous that just about anyone can sneak through at any time. The landmines and IED’s used in these attacks are also becoming more and more sophisticated, some are even remote-detonated.
I tried not to think of those things as my team and I travelled through those counties on the long, terrible road to Dadaab to see for ourselves the first-hand cost of doing nothing for decades while your neighbour is at war. We spent three days in the various refugee camps around Dadaab, escorted everywhere by armed police. We interviewed women and men who had escaped Somali warlords and those who walked for weeks and buried their children in towns they couldn’t remember the names of on their journey.
But there was a moment that stuck with me. Our translator, Hassan, a 30-year-old Somali, said he arrived in Dadaab when he was ten years old. He and his Mother had spent the last two decades knowing nothing but Dadaab, unable to leave. Hassan was interested in journalism, and spoke excellent English. He had obvious style and confidence, despite the fact that his clothes were likely refugee hand-me-downs. His education, his very existence, was as a result of aid agencies, and it is all he knows.
As we were interviewing the new arrivals, who were living in the baking heat in ramshackle UNHCR tents and shrouded in bothersome flies with little food, I heard him speaking to them loudly to them in Somali and gesticulating wildly. After we had wrapped up our shoot, I asked him what he had told them. He said passionately: “I told them they must plant trees. They don’t know how long they will stay. We thought we would only be here temporarily, but my Mother and I have now been here two decades. They must plant trees now, to shade them and protect them in the years to come.”
In Nairobi, we complain about having our hand-bag searched and the odd grenade explosion. But was this the real front-line? If not, what is it? Surely it can’t be a refugee camp, housing half a million people, who had lived here long enough for most to become Kenyan citizens? And, if it is the front line, how long has it been here for, that no one noticed? DM