Kenyan soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on an armoured personnel carrier in Kismayo Kenyan soldiers from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) on an armoured personnel carrier in Kismayo Photo credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price
Talking tactics: Kismayo, Somalia
by Jessica Hatcher January 2013

Dialogue between military and civilian actors is problematic in Somalia, and no more so than in the southern port city of Kismayo, what was the Islamist group al-Shabaab’s last remaining garrison. Considered the most complex urban space in the country, Kismayo is an important trade centre less than 200km from the Kenyan border, and the ultimate prize for the warring sub-clans in the region. After the fall of Siad Barre in 1991, the city was dominated by a succession of some of Somalia’s most feared warlords, and most recently by al-Shabaab. The liberation of Kismayo, the fulcrum of al-Shabaab’s economic activity in Somalia, has long been expected to deliver a fatal and decisive blow to the group. The Kenyaled regional coalition force that took control of the city in August this year has raised a number of concerns about best practice in civil–-military coordination. Communication channels between civilian stakeholders and military actors have been problematic: humanitarian actors have risked compromising their neutrality and endangering local staff, military actors have risked jeopardising their operations and civilians in Kismayo have been liable to persecution. Even basic information-sharing, let alone effective cooperation, has been difficult.

In the capital Mogadishu, the problems involved in delivering humanitarian assistance have forced humanitarian actors to align themselves with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in order to reach people and address their needs. In Kismayo, where the situation is particularly fraught, it is generally agreed that taking assistance from the military could compromise humanitarian operations and create problems for local staff. But with heavy rains, major water and sanitation issues and a large displaced population, humanitarian agencies are asking whether at some point they need to reassess their position. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has stressed the need for humanitarian actors to remain independent of political and security processes. However, Russell Geekie, a spokesperson for OCHA, recently admitted to engaging in regular dialogue with ‘a wide range of actors’ (he did not specify which ones) to help reduce civilian casualties and suffering and to facilitate humanitarian access to those in need.

Battle lines

The operation to retake Kismayo seemed to take place with minimal loss of life: al-Shabaab withdrew and the Kenyans, largely re-hatted under the African Union, and Somali government troops moved in. But while negotiations took place in Nairobi over the future of Kismayo, a good deal of misleading information and speculation suggested little cooperation within the complex web of military and civilian actors.

At no point did the Kenyan military make it easy for humanitarians to operate. Early in 2012, OCHA in Nairobi was informed by an AU representative that the military operation in Kismayo would be a multinational AU undertaking. But by the time the UN’s country team for Somalia was told when the operation was likely to take place this was second- or third-hand information, according to a UN source. UN officials were informed that allied forces were to conduct a three-fold air, sea and land operation at the end of July. This was confirmed by Kenyan politicians, but by September the situation had not changed. During August and September, Kenya reportedly carried out isolated artillery strikes on al- Shabaab positions in the city, some of which they tried to deny. Elders in Kismayo called on Kenyan forces to stop shelling because they had no precise locations to target.

Representatives of the Kenyan military seemed to alternate between claiming responsibility for the operation in Kismayo and passing it off as an AMISOM task. In truth, while AMISOM was responsible for ground attacks, including those by Kenyan troops, Kenya’s air and naval forces were not operating under the AMISOM banner; AMISOM was quick to point out that it had neither air nor naval capabilities. This resulted in confusion between international and foreign military forces regarding roles and responsibilities in Somalia. The knock-on effect was that humanitarians were unsure who they should be interacting with, civilians on the ground did not know who to trust and military actors sought to evade responsibility and blame others when things went wrong. While military actors worked on their approach without divulging their plans, it was the closed-door talks on the future of Kismayo, the outcome of which is still unclear, that were said to be what was holding the Kenyan assault back.

A key cause of concern for humanitarian actors was that no military force had sufficient intelligence of what was happening on the ground to minimise civilian casualties. In this, the distinction that has been drawn between Kenyan troops and AMISOM forces has been good for AMISOM’s reputation. Reports suggest that the AU has worked hard to minimise civilian casualties, where possible using sniper fire and intelligence rather than shelling in the fight against al-Shabaab. The Kenyan invasion, however, has been less scrupulous. Kenyan forces made a slow start in October 2011, when their ground troops were literally bogged down in mud. Two weeks later a fighter jet struck an IDP camp in Jilib in south-central Somalia, prompting the evacuation of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) staff. ‘We received intelligence that a top al-Shabaab leader was to visit a camp at Jilib so we conducted an air raid’, a Kenyan army spokesperson told the BBC, before reports of civilian casualties emerged. At least five civilians died according to MSF, and another 45 were treated for shrapnel wounds. Kenya went on to deny responsibility for the bombing: a spokesperson said the jet had struck an al-Shabaab vehicle, which drove into the camp before exploding. In mid-July, a politician in Somalia, Mohamed Omar Geedi, voiced concerns about Kenyan airstrikes, which he said were killing and injuring livestock. In August, Human Rights Watch reported that three children and a pregnant woman had been killed after a Kenyan ship shelled Kismayo. In September, the Kenyan army confirmed that a Kenyan soldier had opened fire on civilians in a village 50km outside of Kismayo, killing six and seriously injuring two.

Unforeseen consequences

Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are reluctant to discuss their work with warring parties before military action takes place, but steps are being taken to promote discussion afterwards. Kenya has set up a military commission of inquiry to look into violations of International Humanitarian Law. The commission has yet to produce results but is considered a positive starting point in a country where many of the political elite enjoy impunity and the security forces are rarely held to account. All of the various military actors involved in Kismayo stand accused of violating IHL with indiscriminate attacks on civilians. In the 12 months that followed the escalation of the conflict with al-Shabaab in August 2010, more than 4,000 civilian casualties were recorded, and over 1,000 deaths. The history of Somalia and its westerly neighbour, Ethiopia, is marked by suspicion, animosity and conflict, but neither country has ratified the Rome Statute so their forces are beyond the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Kenyans and Ugandans could be charged, but appeals have been made to the court before to probe possible war crimes in Somalia, and have not been prioritised. International military interventions in Somalia have been plagued by unforeseen consequences. Many consider Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006 a significant contributing factor in the rise of al-Shabaab. One unanticipated outcome has been the increase in insecurity in towns where AMISOM has ousted al-Shabaab. Donors and aid agencies see the withdrawal of al-Shabaab as an opportunity, but they need to be aware of the risks inherent in this situation. Summary executions have been reported in two ‘liberated’ towns this year, and abuse against women is said to be on the rise in these areas. The security hold which so-called ‘allied forces’ have is temporary and ad hoc; allied forces carry out abuses by day, and al-Shabaab re-emerges at night.

For humanitarians, even if towns are fully under government control, delivering aid is not necessarily any easier since many of the rural areas surrounding towns remain in the hands of al-Shabaab or its sympathisers. AMISOM has worked hard and done well to earn the support of the civilian population in Mogadishu. The challenge now is to achieve the same in Kismayo, and commentators believe that AMISOM’s role will increasingly be that of a referee between local stakeholders. The humanitarian response is still hampered in the immediate term by restrictions imposed on international NGOs and UN agencies operating in Kismayo. Al-Shabaab started obstructing emergency food distributions by the ICRC in December last year, and made public a ban on the organisation’s work in January. UN agencies were also banned from operating in the city. However, local partners have continued to work to meet needs.

In September, humanitarians had prepositioned emergency supplies around the city in preparation for an impending humanitarian crisis. Civilians had access to the Kismayo General Hospital, but this had extremely limited surgical capacity and was poorly stocked with even basic supplies. MSF, one of the few international NGOs allowed to continue with operations in Kismayo, ran a nutrition programme, but had no capacity for trauma care. The environment for healthcare in general has been extremely challenging: among other things al-Shabaab banned vaccinations and water chlorination (prohibitions that even members of the militant group struggled to justify). There was a risk that civilians could be trapped between fighting forces, further restricting their access to humanitarian assistance. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 800 people left the city between 30 August and 6 September in anticipation of war.

Even as al-Shabaab’s insurgency in south-central Somalia appears to be coming to an end, problems are far from being resolved. Al-Shabaab’s presence has guaranteed a degree of stability in Kismayo; now, competition for control of the city may inflame clan conflict. Given Kismayo’s turbulent recent history, the authority of al-Shabaab may have represented a period of relative calm for the war-weary civilian population. This is a pivotal moment for Somalia. With al-Shabaab on the defensive, the deeply flawed presidential elections in September surprised everyone by producing a new leader, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who is commonly held to be honest and competent and has an extensive network of support amongst Somali civil society. The problems Somalia faces today are born of progress. The road to liberating Kismayo was by no means smooth, and with so many actors involved coordination was key. The lack of information-sharing between the various military actors and between the military and humanitarian agencies made it more difficult to minimise civilian casualties, and the lack of clear lines of command and accountability in relation to the Kenyan military further complicated matters. What is required now is ongoing cooperation between AMISOM, local leaders and the government, the creation of space for humanitarians to provide much-needed assistance while maintaining their independence from political and security processes, and to put the future of Somalia back in the hands of the Somalis, who may be sick of warlords and jihadis, but who are also sick of the West.

Jessica Hatcher is an independent journalist based in Nairobi.

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