Kenya needs strategic mindset to engage ‘global Somalia’

President William Ruto welcomes Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud

President William Ruto welcomes Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud at the Eldoret International Airport. Kenya needs a grand strategy to promote reconciliation between rival clans in Jubaland, foster broad-based cooperation against Al-Shabaab and safeguard its national integrity and sovereignty.

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

At 60, Kenya is still ‘a state in search of a nation’. This contrasts sharply with Somalia as ‘a nation in search of state’ because its people share a common ancestry, culture and history.

Project Kenya is a perfect ‘imagined community’ of 40-plus ‘ethnic nations’— to borrow the title of Benedict Anderson’s famous book, Imagined Communities (1983) that analyses nationalism. It is an invention of the fertile imaginations of its founders and those who continue to perceive themselves as part of it.

This begs the question: after six decades, is nation-building in Kenya a success or failure? The jury is still out. But the Somali nation has palpably been the litmus test of the success of the Kenyan nation. It continues to be so.

In a word, 20th-century Kenya was forged on the anvil of the epic clash between pan-Somali nationalism and Kenyan nationalism. And 21st century Kenya is being forged in the crucible of a new ‘global Somalia’. After 1991, ‘global Somalia’ has emerged as one of the most strategic and globalised nations today. 

It is my thesis that the future of the ‘Kenyan nation’ remains uncertain as long as the country has no grand strategy to harness the potential of the new ‘global Somalia’ and to tame its demons. Unavoidably, the kernel of Kenya’s grand strategy must be Jubaland — the Alsace–Lorraine of the Horn of Africa.

The twin notions of ‘Kenyanness’ and ‘Somaliness’ were born out of anti-colonial resistance. Their encounter has unfolded over two phases. The first phase, 1960-1990, was the age of nationalism. 

Two factors explain why Jubaland, which was always an integral part of Britain’s ‘Greater Kenya’, was hewed out of Kenya. One is the failure to pacify the Kenyan colony of Jubaland and bring back the Marehan and other Somali groups under effective colonial control in the aftermath of the Marehan Somali rebellion from 1913 to 1914. Second, the British ceded Jubaland to Italy in July 1925 ostensibly as a belated reward to Rome for joining the allied cause in the First World War. 

Kenya’s settlers protested against the move. But in the 1960s, Kenyan nationalists kowtowed to the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) principle that affirmed the legality of borders inherited from colonialism. They neither insisted on Jubaland as a ‘missing land’ nor for its reunification with the Kenyan mainland. 

‘Missing lands’

In contrast, at independence on July 1, 1960, Somalia’s founding fathers fought to unify the “missing lands” in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya to form a ‘Greater Somalia’. Irredentism fuelled a violent clash of nationalisms signified by Somalia’s ‘Shifta war’ with Kenya (1963-1967) and the Ogaden War with Ethiopia (1977-1978). 

Regionally, pan-Somali nationalism assaulted pan-Africanism. Upon coming to power in the 1969 coup d'état, Mohamed Siad Barre, a Marehan from Gedo, a Kenya-Somalia détente started. Barre visited Kenya in June 1981. 

Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi made a three-day return visit to Somalia on July 22-25, 1984. And in the wake of a grisly car accident on May 23, 1986, Kenyan doctors flew in to stabilise Barre before he was transferred to Riyad, Saudi Arabia. In January 1991, Barre was forced into exile in Kenya before heading for Nigeria in 1992 where he died in 1995.

The second phase, 1991-2023, is the age of globalisation that saw the rise of the new ‘global Somalia’ followed the overthrow of Barre in 1991, the collapse of the Somali state, civil war and refugee influx. By 2023, the Somali nation is estimated at 26.24 million people in 25 countries, including 17.1 million in Somalia, 4.6 million in Ethiopia, 2.8 million in Kenya, 534,000 in Djibouti and the rest in the Somali diaspora or ‘Qurbajoogta’ in all corners of the world.

Global Somalia, way larger than the 16 million-strong global Jewry, is the most strategic nation in the Horn. 

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, is pushing for Somalia to join the seven-member East African Community. Even the al-Shabaab are recreating the ancient Zanj Empire on the Swahili Coast, stretching from Somalia to the Mozambican seaport of Sofala and deep into Congo, to hew an East African Islamic caliphate. 

Strategically, global Somalia is weaving regional and global citizenships—and winning power, influence and markets in the ‘missing lands’ and beyond. In Kenya, the Somali nation is at the helm of the security sector. Aden Bare Duale is Kenya’s Defence Cabinet Secretary and Major-General Abdukadir Mohammed Burje is the new Director of Military Intelligence. Former ambassador Mohamud Ali Saleh, is Chief Administrative Secretary in the powerful Interior Ministry; Amin Mohamed Ibrahim is the new Director of DCI and Noordin Haji is poised to become the Director General of the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

In Ethiopia, Ahmed Shidde, an influential member of PM Abiy Ahmed's Prosperity Party, has been Finance minister since 2018. And in Tanzania, which has about 77,000 Somalis, Hussein Mohamed Bashe has been the Agriculture minister since January 10, 2022. And in Uganda, an influential Somali diaspora has emerged made up of refugees, entrepreneurs and students.

In 2015, the UN estimated that Somalis in the diaspora sent home about $1.6 billion annually—a sum larger than foreign aid and investments combined.

But global Somalia is also a target of anti-globalisation anger in the West. 

Propelled by clan loyalties, faith and markets, global Somalia is torn by clan rivalries. Since its entry into Somalia to fight the al-Shabaab in 2011, Kenya is perceived as taking sides in power tussles involving rival clans along its border with Somalia. 

In Jubaland, expected to hold state elections later this year, Marehan- Ogaden rivalry continues to undermine the ongoing fight against the al-Shabaab. Efforts to contain former President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, who is expected to run for elections in 2027, are stoking clan tensions.

Kenya needs a grand strategy to promote reconciliation between rival clans in Jubaland, foster a broad-based cooperation against Al-Shabaab and safeguard its national integrity and sovereignty.

Prof Kagwanja is former Government Adviser, the Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University (NDU), Kenya.