‘Officers and gentlemen’ shaping Kenya’s Horn of Africa policy

Outgoing Chief of Defence Forces Samson Mwathethe gives a speech during his farewell party at the Ministry of Defence headquarters in Nairobi on May 8, 2020. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Mwathethe took the mantle of KDF leadership at a time when Al-Shabaab was moving the art of terrorism to a whole new level.
  • Data by the UNHCR and Igad shows an estimated 88 per cent of refugees returning to Somalia ended up in Kismayu because of safety.

An officer and a gentleman. This old expression from the British Royal Navy, which also inspired the title for perhaps the best American film of 1982, is, undoubtedly, an apt depiction of General Samson Jefwa Mwathethe, the ninth Chief of Defence Forces (CDF).

On May 8, 2020, the Kenyan military braved the Covid-19 pandemic, donned face masks and completed the time-honoured tradition of organising a ceremonial change of guard at the highest military office in the land.

Mwathethe, the ninth CDF, and his predecessors, have nurtured the Kenyan military from a tiny colonial army to one of the top and finest militaries.

The May 2020 change of guard ceremony brought to the fore two aspects of the military. The first is the pomp, prestige and honour accorded to the occupant of Kenya’s highest military office.

However, despite the importance and prestige of the office, it is the lynchpin in the enduring principle of subordination of the military to civilian authority in a democratic order.

The second aspect, and the hallmark of the 2020 change of guard at the KDF, was the launch of a new book, War for Peace: Kenya’s Military in the African Mission in Somalia, 2012-2020, which landscapes, at the strategic level, the achievements, challenges and lessons KDF has learned from the past and how they inform the present and the future.

Roughly, the book spans three clear historic phases of Kenya’s military involvement in the Horn of Africa, with far-reaching impact on its won development.


The first is the “age of war”, covering the quarter century between 1963 and 1989.

This was characterised by the “Shifta War”, as Somalia fuelled and supported a secessionist movement aimed at annexing Kenya’s North-Eastern Province (NEP) to a “Greater Somalia”.

Although KDF won the Shifta campaign, which ended with a peace deal with Somalia signed in Arusha Tanzania in 1967, this triggered reforms of the military to create a strong, professional, disciplined and modern military.

Long before the civilian leadership discarded the tyrannical one-party system and the sit-tight imperial presidency, between 1996 and 2002, visionaries in the military, convinced that absolute power corrupts absolutely, had put a clear term limit on the military leadership: CDFs serve a single term of four years, or retire upon the attainment of the mandatory retirement age.

They dismantled the colonial-era system, modernised the military, deepened professionalisation and mainstreamed gender, thus creating a modern force suited for the 21st Century.

As a result, between 1963 and 2020, Kenya contributed over 40,000 troops to international peace support operations in over 40 countries, while its institutions have trained over 50,000 peacekeepers. The country also continued to serve under different UN bodies dedicated to peace.

The second is “the age of war and peace” between 1989 and 2004, which coincided with the fall of President Siad Barre, civil war and efforts to restore a government in Somalia.


Kenya gave refuge to millions of leaders, business people, asylum-seekers and refugees and supported peace processes in Somalia, culminating in the formation of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Nairobi, which mutated to the current Federal Government of Somalia.

The third phase, “the age of extremism” from 2004, signified the failure of both foreign interventions and of secular modernisation in Somalia and the tragic rise of Jihadi Islamism.

After 2006, the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab became the new face of jihadism and the existential threat to Kenya’s security.

On October 14, 2011, Kenya responded to the threat by invoking its right to self-defence under international law and launching Operation Linda Nchi (“Protect the Country”) – its first ever military operation in a neighbouring country since independence – in pursuit of Al-Shabaab terrorists deep into southern Somalia.

On July 6, 2012, Kenya re-hatted and placed its 4,664 troops in Somalia under the command of the African Mission in Somalia (Amisom) – Africa’s new collective security response to the complex crisis in Somalia.

Amisom KDF forces have recorded remarkable success, especially in restoring peace in areas under its control.

Data by the UNHCR and Igad shows an estimated 88 per cent of refugees returning to Somalia ended up in Kismayu because of safety, security and amenities, as well as the presence of international humanitarian agencies in Kismayu town.


Kenya’s entry into Somalia was a gamechanger. But Kenya has been caught up in the whole gamut of contradictions of an underfunded, restricted and seemingly internally divided African peacekeeping force.

The Kenyan troops were well-trained in the “art of war”. But they were ill-equipped or prepared for the ‘war on truth’ in Somalia that has bedevilled peace-keeping operations in the 21st Century.

Sweeping allegations of corruption against its soldiers in Amisom aided al-Shabaab’s propaganda and hurt KDF’s integrity.

Further, Mwathethe took the mantle of KDF leadership at a time when Al-Shabaab was moving the art of terrorism to a whole new level.

The militia resorted to swarming raids on bases of Amisom and partners to garner news coverage and feed its propaganda, and to sway public opinion against Amisom. The most recent is the raid on the American Camp Simba in Lamu County in January 2020.

Prior to these attacks, Amisom’s partners resisted listing Shabaab as a terrorist organisation. But the wave of attacks has turned a sharp international spotlight on the group.


But the return of Cold War geopolitics, geostrategic interests of regional powers and resurgent pan-Somali nationalism are slowing down the momentum against the militants.

Amisom is slated to exit by December 2021. The new KDF Chief, General Robert K. Kibochi, the 10th CDF, has to shape the military’s vision and strategy for a post-Amisom security order that guarantees Kenya’s security.

To General Mwathethe, fair winds and following seas ahead.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is the Chief Editor of the newly launched KDF book, ‘War for Peace: Kenya’s Military in the African Union, 2012-2020’ (May 2020, ISBN: 978-9966-130-88-4)