My Man In Somalia

In the beginning, I felt invincible. I was part of a duo in our neighbourhood, that the boys at the estate called the ‘untouchables’. They could look but they could not touch. We were army wives, married to soldiers and the kind of men you did not want to cross.

Now, not so much.

I have been counting down days, since the start of the year. My man Bwasa, a KDF sergeant is going to soon be back from Somalia. He said, this would be the mother of all Valentines, when he walked me down the aisle. I had anticipated this day for years but we were unable to settle on a date because Bwasa’s combat mission dates were unpredictable.

Mama, I Do Not Want To Be A War Hero

KDF war hero

On a drive back to Nairobi from Kisumu, I stopped in Nakuru to catch up with an old friend over lunch. Sunny was a Nakuru boy who had taken up the very healthy habit of avid reading, mostly around historical subjects and excitedly shared his latest reads. Most of what he had to say felt like a crash course on European history during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. The better part flew over my head but I had some grasp on Nazi Germany and the rise of the Third Reich due to the attention paid to that period in cinema. Sunny was astounded by the tyranny of Adolf Hitler’s reign during the Third Reich (1933-1945) and how ugly it got for the civilian population. “People were stripped of their decency, even clothes, Man! How quickly we forget!” It was a statement that demanded a moment of silence. After a long drawn out sigh, he added, “My mother says, we are lucky to be a generation that did not have to live through a war”.

Only a mother would understand the tormenting fear that shadows the departure of sons sent off to war and not wish it on another. When the higher ups decide that the battle has to be fought, some mothers have no choice but to give their sons up for war. My grandfathers’ generation came of age in British East Africa and their lives were disrupted by foreign wars. From their ranks, battalions of young men were shipped from Kenya to the Asian jungles in Burma to fight for the British crown in the 40s. They comprised the forgotten heroes from Kings African Rifle brigade, the 11th East African division who played a small but significant role in driving the Japanese invasion out of Burma and helped Britain regain control of its colony and dominion over the Burmese.

Many did not return after the end of war in 1945 but their families kept their memories alive by passing the names on to the next generation. One war veteran named Omanje, from my little village out in Gem, Siaya County, who lived to see the 80s, participated in the action in Burma. Villagers describe an eccentric character who built a famous rickety wooden bridge across the rapids of river Yala. It was a personal bridge and he charged people to use it. I never heard anyone refer to him as a war hero. He just a short tempered old man who smoked too much pot and fought in a big war with wazungus, a long time ago, in a country that nobody knew anything about.

Soldiers are often heroes only in death. It is a recurring story of men who put their lives on the line for country. Forgotten heroes, only brought to our attention to remind us of the privilege of having another man fight to preserve one’s right to a peaceful night sleep. In death, they are accorded the dignity of a military funeral complete with a draped flag. Young widows urged to hold back their tears for there is no greater honour than dying for your country on the battlefield. Every soldier is a mother’s son and I empathise with Kenyan mothers agonising over the fate of their sons in the aftermath of the devastating Al Shabaab attack on a KDF battalion at El Adde inside Somalia.

This level of distress has been a constant for Kenyan mothers since our troops crossed into Somalia in 2011 under President Kibaki in a military campaign dubbed “Linda Nchi”. Five years on, the carnage has been relentless and the body count piles up. Innocent shoppers at Westgate to hapless students at Garissa University and now scaling up to an overrun army camp in Somalia.

The official response has fallen into a cyclic pattern of ceremonial appearances. The breaking news story, headlined by an impassioned speech from the visibly angry Commander in Chief roundly condemning the attackers and promising revenge. Trailed by reports of the military in hot pursuit of the perpetrators with the single mission of hitting them where it hurts. Airforce jets are instructed to launch airstrikes to satiate outraged citizens’ thirst for revenge. Peace mongers are denounced for lack of patriotism and bowing to the pressure of the extremists. Politicians across the board reserve comments on accountability as patriotic fervour rants the air. A week later, the heat cools down and the news cycle returns to the intrigues of the political business.

War on terror coverage has become an occupational hazard in media reportage. The preferred narrative of a cowardly rag tag militia is becoming a difficult sell to a rational thinking public. Given the very real trauma that terrorism has visited on both civilians and military personnel, Kenyans have adopted a deflection strategy. If we pretend it does not exist, it might just go away. It is unpatriotic to apportion blame as a country mourns its fallen heroes and families agonizingly wait for their bodies for burial. The thoughtful things to say is, “Mistakes were made’ and to leave room for speculation.

The truth is the first causality as it becomes highly ambiguous. The default media position is towing the sanctioned script. Crossing the fine line between the truth and Al Shabaab’s propaganda machine is walking into a minefield of consequences. With this information gap, citizens resort to what they know. Slogan chanting and hashtag activism #KDFOurHeroes #SomeonetellAlshabaab. Patriots beat the drums of war from the safety of their storeyed bedrooms desperate for someone to blame for the induced state of helplessness.

It is easier to look the other way and simplify terrorism to religious fanaticism. Easier to feign ignorance as Somalis in Eastleigh endure another round of official profiling and police harassment. Stony silence prevails when collective blame visits Kenyan Muslims every time we have a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, the grieving mothers, attempt to come to terms with the loss of a son sent off to war patriotically. A mother whose final consolation, is an empty condolence message that reads, “We sorry for your loss but never forget! Your son was a WAR HERO!”

How To Explain The War On Terror, One Hashtag At A Time

Bring Back Our Girls

There is no more sure evidence that we living the digital age, than the proliferation of symbols to paraphrase conversation. In the digital age, time is money, attention spans are limited and the daily deluge of information pours in nanoseconds. The contemporary and multi-tasking netizen has no brain memory for long reads and requires their news broken down into 140 characters. Or less. Nothing does that more effectively than a hashtag. A #, is worth a thousand words.

Anyone who has not mastered the basic art of hashtag speak, will experience difficulty interpreting the daily news. The Jubilee government, in keeping with its digital credentials is out to banish analogue ignorance and bring about digital enlightenment one hashtag at a time. Which is why, the government’s counter terrorism strategy can be summed up in series of hashtags.

It all started in October 2011 #WarOnTerror. The former head of state #BabaJimmy declared that Kenya would secure its borders and protect its interests #OperationLindaNchi. Kenyan Defense Forces #KDF resolved to invade Somalia to pursue a ragtag militia with global networks #AlQueda. The main focus was capturing the port of Kismayo that was identified as the nerve centre of #Alshabaab’s operation fueled largely by charcoal. Kenya Defense Forces early wins in foreign territory against the enemy, got citizens#KOT cheering #Najivunia. Comparatively, KDF was doing a lot better than the Nigerian forces #BokoHaram #BringbackOurGirls.

Hashtag-NRD-600-wLogo

But eliminating a guerrilla force in Somalia is not a weekend affair #BlackHawkDown.

Two grenades blasts in Nairobi at Mwaura’s bar and the OTC bus station brought the chaos to our doorstep #RealityCheck. Kenyans were asked to stay calm, remain vigilant and report any suspicious characters to the police #WhiteWidow. Kenyan police conducted quick investigations and a suspect, an indigenous Kenyan was apprehended with a cache of explosives in Kayole and jailed for life #Bwire. But the grenade attacks continued to be reported in Nairobi. Many innocent civilians were caught unawares #Gikomba. A grenade attack in a matatu killed 4 #EastleighBlast. Another 5 lives were lost in a mosque where an MP was also injured #KamukunjiMP. Then the attackers began religious profiling of their targets #ChristiansUnderAttack and started to oscillate between Nairobi and Mombasa.

The government talked tough and stepped up operations #ShootToKill. Two fiery Muslim clerics were assassinated in broad light by unknown people #MombasaBurning. A few mosques were fingered as key recruiting grounds for young men into the terrorists ranks #Radicalization. The security forces stepped up their efforts. Everyone had to get involved. The citizens could no longer be by-standers #NyumbaKumi.

But once again, the government was caught flat footed #WestgateAttack. 67 Kenyans and foreign nationals were killed in a 4 day siege. Kenyans watched the live footage in disbelief but still managed to summon the strength to rally support for the victims #WeAreOne. KDF forces were highly criticized for bungling the rescue operation #lootenants.

Profiling of Ethnic Somalis increased #EnemyWithin. An anti-terrorism operation was conducted. Over 1000 Kenyans of Somali heritage, including elderly women and children were detained #KasaraniConcentrationCamp. Human Rights activists screamed violations. Despite this, the security situation continued to deteriorate and the tourists flew right past the country to Tanzania #TravelAlert.

The massacres got bloodier and brazen #Mpeketoni #Lamu #ManderaBusAttack, #ManderaAttack #Wajirattack. Kenyans took to twitter in droves to protest #insecurityKE. Nothing changed. They said #Tumechoka. And they made their voice heard on the streets #OccupyHarambeeAve

The demands were clear. Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku had to be fired #LenkuOut alongside the Commissioner of Police for failing to protect Kenyan lives #KimaiyoMustGo. The replacements came in with flowery credentials. #Nkaissery a retired Major-General turned politician and the new Police Commissioner #JBoinnet wielding impeccable service credentials #RegionalBalance. The terrorists were undeterred. The two gentlemen had hardly settled into office before another heinous attack on university students occurred #GarissaUniv.

The assault was bloody. #GarissaAttack. Over 140 students lost their lives in a dawn attack. Concerned Kenyans tried to keep their memory alive #147IsNotJustANumber #TheyHaveNames. The rest of the world joined in solidarity #JeSuisGarissa as Kenyans watched numbed as parents identified disfigured bodies at the Chiromo Mortuary #ChildrenOfALesserGod.

Garissa Township MP and House Majority leader said he had a list of local sponsors of terrorism #DualeList. One month later, he retracted his earlier statement #DualeChangesTune. A week ago another terrorism incident was reported #YumbisAttack . The official response was quick #NorwaySupportsTerror and earlier news reports of casualties were dismissed as false leads from Al Shabaab #PRopaganda

Perhaps there are internal actors behind the relentless terror attacks #BigQuestion. The suspects are well known #Refugees. The solution is not rocket science #CloseDaabaab. At this rate, the government has to prioritize security to key instalments #VIPs. The rest of the citizenry must continue to remain vigilant #SecurityBeginsWithYou and exercise patience as the state forces tackle the terrorism menace #ForsakenNorth.

It has become plainly obvious that we are fighting a misguided war, against an amorphous enemy, and with little understanding of intentions of the terrorists or how to anticipate them #Kalongolongo. Who is going to save us from terrorism #SomeoneCallSonkoRescue? Maybe, we should just breathe in and stay calm #AcceptandMoveOn #JustSaying.

Randy Glasbergen

Where Absurd Is The New Normal

One of the most commonly repeated witness accounts after the Westgate tragedy was how frequently we heard the statement, “we thought it was a normal robbery”. In good old Nairobbery, gunmen shooting up a place in broad day light are normal affairs. We have generally learnt to how to mind our business and keep out of the way of other people’s problems.

In reality, if you haven’t been carjacked, mugged, had your drink spiked, lost a phone or least paid a bribe against your better conscience then you are still yet to earn your stripes as a true Nairobian. Either way, ‘touch wood’ because someone out there is eying your cell phone. Thugs could burst through your local hang and order everyone to lala chini, wallets and cell phones in the air and it is not unusual to get clobbered for presenting a cheap phone.  The good thieves will be kind enough to leave you with your sim card because losing all your sim contacts is an unbearable inconvenience. These are normal occurrences.  Every Nairobian knows about a mulika mwizi. That back up phone you acquire after your smart phone gets snatched as you save up to upgrade back to a status phone.

There are a number of other things that are quite normal in this city besides robbery. Sudden potholes emerging out of a major highway overnight and growing by the day into large craters that would be more suited to fish farming is fairly normal.

Traffic jams are a way of life. Idiots overlapping, refusing to give way at roundabouts and generally being a nuisance on the roads is a feature of the city you get accustomed to. A normal day begins with at least half a dozen matatu drivers side tracking you in traffic.  Tens of people die in road accidents almost daily because the bus was overloaded, speeding, malfunctioning and the driver fell asleep on the wheel and the incident will be filed as yet another normal road tragedy. It is quite normal for a traffic cop to ask for a bribe. It is the language of negotiation and unless you are from out of town, you will understand that it is an issue of convenience because justice takes its sweet time in these parts. Power blackouts are normal. You never know the time nor the hour but when it comes to electricity, sooner rather than later, you come to appreciate the simplicity of a candle lit dinner.

Politicians behaving badly, is a normal occurrence. An occasional scandal here and some abusive language there is the kind of regular content that guarantees a captive audience during the news hour. It is a normal expectation for the head of state to surround himself with cronies from his ethnic backyard. A little flare every five years is just normal election violence that is really no big deal and unless it involves ‘your people’.

On numerous occasions the authorities will lose sleep over the latest national crisis, constitute a committee and if the report never sees the light of day, no need to worry. That is quite normal. Normal is the default mode of coping with the numerous stresses that the city throws at you. The lack of power in the face of these daily challenges brings about a deep sense of resignation and apathy.  But in Nairobi, these feelings are normal.

 

  IN-DISCIPLINED FORCES

It is becoming quite apparent that our celebrated defense forces were rather hands on during the Westgate siege that saw Al Shabaab affiliated terrorists’ rain havoc on our otherwise peaceful lives. Having never witnessed the military in close combat, the aftermath of their involvement during the four day city mall siege was rather disturbing. Accusations of looting and rampant destruction of property paint a picture of a force that expends energy in all the wrong places. For property owners in swanky mall, it was case of being caught between ruthless terrorists and greedy patriots. A cash box too many disappeared. Shop owners claimed that they stripped bare and they are not accusing the terrorists. The calculated pilfering of a building supposedly under the guard of the country’s elite forces should be very worrying. It is a major symptom of a systemic illness and a rapidly infectious national malady that celebrates greed and violence.

When one steals in an official capacity, it will be described as a redistribution of wealth. It is merely our patriotic duty because no one really bothers a rich thief in this country. It is the petty criminals that suffer the brunt. We generally live by the principle that greed is good and if you want to steal then steal properly. Kenyans look down upon modest thieves. Anyone who gets nailed for stealing loose change would be considered foolish and a candidate for mass lynching. We live by a strange code of honour among thieves and the biggest thieves are admired for their audacity. The likelihood of the looters at Westgate getting away with the crime is high. A scapegoat or two will be arraigned to serve as example but given the long history of officially sanctioned corruption, looters can only be accused of picking the crumbs off the table.

 

Our Man In Somalia: Reflections On The War On Terror

It is almost two weeks into Kenya’s invasion of Somalia. If you don’t watch the news or read the papers you could almost forget that Kenya is at war. There is so much new information streaming in daily. It is getting harder to decipher hype from fact.  Feelings of uncertainty are rising in the city because we fighting an amorphous enemy. Two grenade attacks in Nairobi, allegedly a copy cat terrorist pledging allegiance to Al Shabaab has brought the war on Somalia onto our doorsteps. It is no longer over there. The next man in the streets could be the enemy within. Given the amount of aggrieved jobless youth in our midst, it does not paint a pretty picture.  The government has some great advice though, be vigilant and patriotic.  We desperately need a man in Somalia to tell us what’s going on?

The news is not too racy as yet because the war has been ‘good’ so far. TV stations are groping for fresh angles. KTN had a clip on a captured Al Shabaab soldier, some smiling teenage in a loose T-shirt. I might be mistaken but think I saw a Kenyan soldier’s arm resting lazily on the boys shoulder. We clearly treat our prisoners-of-war amicably. Our military looks like the Salvation Army on a meet and greet tour. You almost half expect them to start handing out Brand Kenya flyers. NTV chose a depressing causality of war story and had me wondering how many body bags were making it across the border. Jeff Koinange on the bench at K24 had better pulse on situation on a recent interview with Dr. David Matsanga of the Africa World Media. Even as the outspoken Matsanga took a pro war stance in between the furious banter, a proxy war was alluded to that had all the markings of a NATO conspiracy. But our man in Somalia Michael Njenga of Citizen TV took the prize. His transition from business suits to combat fatigues was progressing well. By day 10 on the frontline he had bullets strapped across his shoulders, clutching a gun and grimacing like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the flick Commando.  He was cautious as he delivered military intelligence to the captive audience at home something along the lines of, “The army will be moving to the town but we cannot tell you when because of security reasons but all we can say is it that is very soon”. Indeed.

War time reportage is clearly new territory. It is lucrative as it guarantees a wide captive audience and crucial eyeballs for advertisers. Audiences are hooked to the daily dose of depressing news and wars sell like hot cake. Worryingly though, prime time news casters are starting to look like spectators, seemingly uninformed as the rest, heavy on innuendos and speculation all delivered in a manner that is already starting to disrupt peoples’ lives. Between the opinion polls, controlled images and footage, objectivity has lost ground to patriotic duty. Our men in Somalia have the heavy responsibility of helping us understand the premise of this war. We do not need them to be part of a press junket facilitated the military’s PR machine.

The war on terror was a ‘surprise’ turn of events especially this close to Christmas and a General election. Kenya’s foreign policy though viewed as cowardly had always taken pragmatic decisions in regional conflicts. The drum beats of war against Al Shabaab and the sketchy detail around the cause for retaliation are not holding up too well to scrutiny.

Somalia is not a single country in the conventional use of the word and the political issues behind the perennial conflicts are complex. Ever since Said Barre was deposed in 1991, every foreign invasion has been expelled with heavy consequences and left the situation worse than they found it. Daniella Kroslak of the International Crisis Group in an All Africa article dated 26 June 2009, suggested that militant Islamists were trying to draw Kenya into a trap and argued strongly against getting drawn into the Somalia conflict. We are now in the early stages of an occupation with no clearly stated exit strategy. We are fighting an unorthodox enemy and guerilla units throughout history have been underestimated to everyone’s detriment.

This war has gained legitimacy over a very narrow range of discussion. There has not been sufficient public information and serious discussion on the repercussions of this engagement. The constitutional mandate has not been sought. The Commander in Chief and the Prime Minister have been very economical with the official position. The usually cackling Parliamentarians seem more preoccupied with their ICC witch-hunting. When the minister for Internal Security (the late) George Saitoti  invoked UN article 51 proclaiming a country’s right to self defense, the constricted reason provided was the economy in this case protecting precious dollars attached to tourism and aid business revenue from rogue militia.

Nonetheless, the social economic consequences at hand and Geo-political interests hinted publicly by military sources such as ‘logistical support’ from NATO lords US and France cannot be ignored. It should not be long before we hear the words ‘freedom and democracy’ followed by aerial bombardments and drone attacks. The retaliation is likely to be disproportionate and portends open season for war crimes against a civilian Somali population condemned to a never ending humanitarian crisis.

Religious propaganda will likely form the ideological basis on both sides. Soon we will be all killing each other in the name of God. Especially worrying is the xenophobic wave that will tar the Kenyan Somali population weary from successive government ‘screening’ operations. The discriminatory treatment could be justified in the name of public good. Al Shabaab has becomes our bogey man, lurking in every corner making innocent civilians collateral damage in a war they do not understand.

The Somalia affair is an unlikely to be a 7 day raid. It has the potential to be long drawn out war that could involve the entire East African region lending Al Shabaab, a new lease of life as the underdog and rallying jihadists against the invaders. Alternatively, the assault might smother Al Shahaab, only to bring rise to a new resistance inspired by their predecessors. The world is not a safer place after the death of Sadaam, Osama or Gadaffi. As late American comedian George Carlin said, “Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity”.

Therefore, can my man in Somalia drop the showbiz and tell us what’s going on?

Confucius says

 

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

Originally published: October 27, 2011

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