The Kenya-Ethiopia Defence Pact: Has Somalia become a pawn?

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The Kenya-Ethiopia Defence Pact: Has Somalia become a pawn?

It has been 60 years since the Kenya-Ethiopia Defence Pact was signed. Although ostensibly formed by the two countries to protect and come to each other’s aid if either were attacked, at the heart of the treaty was, and still remains, Somalia – their civil-war-troubled neighbour. Wanjohi Kabukuru analyses its impact and relevance six decades on.

The two men who shepherded the Kenya-Ethiopia Defence Pact in were Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and Kenya’s founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, leading Pan-Africanists and bosom buddies. But their relationship goes back in time.

It is an open secret in Addis Ababa that Selassie supported Kenya’s Mau Mau liberation struggle against British colonial rule and surreptitiously supported the Kenyatta family.

The untold history of how hundreds of Mau Mau fighters were assimilated in Ethiopia still evokes emotions and debate in Kenya. The Ethiopian foreign affairs ministry acknowledges all this and notes that Ethiopia on the other hand had battled the Italian occupation forces through the use of Kenyan territory and secured medical support and military aid.

And the principle of reciprocity between the two nations has never wavered 60 years later.

In the 60s both Ethiopia and Kenya had come to appreciate Somalia’s large military and its extensive support and armament from the USSR due to its Cold War allegiance to the Soviets. What scared Nairobi and Addis Ababa were the territorial ambitions that Somalia harboured, which meant claiming parts of Kenya and Ethiopia.

The core of the Kenya-Ethiopia Defence Pact, which has been renewed consistently over the years, is significantly based on a united response should Somalia attack either of them.

Even though the economic dynamics, political realities and security challenges have changed with time, the heart of this special pact has always been aimed at checking what has come to be known as “Somalia’s irredentism”.

Between 1963 and 1968 the newly independent Kenyan state was faced by a secessionist insurgency of ethnic Somalis living within Kenya who wanted to be identified with the “greater Somalia” ideal. Kenya maintained that the insurgents were being supported by Mogadishu, a claim the Somali government denied.

But even though Mogadishu denied the logistical support for the secession fight, its radio propaganda broadcast support of the “Pan-Somali” nation undermined these denials.

Kenya’s response to the secessionist claims and guerilla war was the ruthless and traumatic template borrowed from the British offensive against the Kenyan Mau Mau liberation struggle.

Kenyan securocrats talked down the secession demands, terming  the insurgency a “Shifta [the Somali word for bandit] War”, demoting the entire border row to a fight against banditry.

The genesis and wake-up call
Even though Mogadishu denied that it was arming the “Shifta”, it was ironic that in 1967 Somalia’s prime minister, Mohammed Egal, signed a ceasefire agreement with Kenyatta. This saw Kenya remaining within the colonial boundaries. It was a severe blow to the secessionist demands.According to declassified files the ceasefire put on hold Kenya’s plans for a full-scale war with Somalia, even though defence officials openly admitted that they had limited military capabilities.

The genesis of the conflict goes back to colonialism and the intrigues that prevailed over all of Africa’s border demarcations. The Anglo-Italian Boundary Commission agreed to the Treaty of London of 25 July 1924, to demarcate the boundary between the Protectorate of Kenya and Italian Somaliland.  

At the dawn of Kenya’s independence, the Somalis living in Kenya were unanimous that they wanted to be part of the greater Somalia, and had expressed their views to the colonial British government.

The British never honoured the wishes of the Somalis as the independence negotiations got underway. And the succeeding post-independence Kenyan governments have made little effort to develop this region, retaining its brand as “bandit-prone”. Ethiopia on the other hand had its Ogaden region being claimed by Somalia. As early as 1954, Somalia and Ethiopia were already hostile neighbours engaged in territorial skirmishes. To Mogadishu, the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty of 1954 was not binding and they saw it as nothing more than trickery, denying Somalis in Ethiopia their rights of self-determination. A fully-fledged Ethiopia-Somalia border conflict, the 1977-78 Ogaden War, ensued with an estimated death toll of over 4,000 people.

The then Somali leader Gen. Mohamed Siad Barre had sensed weaknesses within the Ethiopian government, then under Col. Mengistu Hailemariam, and decided to exploit the opportunity by assaulting the Ogaden region in the undying “greater Somalia” quest. It is during this war that the intensity of international geopolitics played out. Between 1962 and 1977 the Soviets had advanced to Somalia military aid worth $87m, which included tanks, military advisers, aircraft, armoured personnel carriers, torpedoes, a naval fleet and missile defence system.

During the initial stages of the conflict the Soviet government supported both sides. Ultimately though, Mengistu’s Marxist policies won over the Soviets, and they abandoned Barre.

The US had been Ethiopia’s main ally, seeking to have access over the Indian Ocean and to checkmate events in the volatile Middle East.

Just as it lost the “Shifta War”, Somalia lost the Ogaden War too. These two losses greatly undermined the “greater Somalia” agenda and opened the country to international manipulation.
Somalia’s strong expansionist tendencies, as revealed by the Ogaden War, exposed intricate continental African geopolitical interests at play.

International manipulations
For example, Egypt’s support for Somalia was an age-old strategy by Cairo to protect its interests over the Nile River, whose main tributary the Blue Nile is in Ethiopia. During the Ogaden War Egypt’s military aid to Somalia amounted to $30 million.

Barre ruled Somalia with strong-arm tactics. He was overthrown in 1991 by a cluster of clan lords whose support, though unconfirmed, has largely been viewed as emanating from Kenya and Ethiopia. Barre went into exile in Nigeria, dying in 1995.

Economically, Kenya, and Djibouti benefitted immensely with Somalia’s collapse. The use of the Djibouti and Mombasa ports prevailed at the expense of Somalia’s large coastline.

Unlike many other nations, Somalia’s political power structure spiralled into a vacuum and paved the way for clan lords to emerge. The centralised government’s system collapsed. This fall of the leadership structure helped foster what would become the world’s biggest headache, as piracy and radicalism found a haven in Somalia. Seeking to turn the tide, the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), then involved in the “War on Terror”, was keen to keep Islamic radicalism at bay and sought to take advantage of the situation by funding warlords in Somalia through its station chief in Nairobi.

US-backed warlords
The 1998 bombing of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya highlighted active Al Qaeda cells in the fragmented Somalia, supporting sleepers in Kenya, Tanzania, Comoros and Sudan.
In 2004 the international community came up with the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) after discussions in Addis Ababa, Djibouti and Nairobi. Though supported by the international community, the TFG lacked the all-important on-the-ground support.

By 2005, a new grouping to counter the TFG was formed: the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). The ICU had achieved what the US-backed warlords and TFG could not by establishing a centralised government structure. This was short-lived as the ICU’s agenda of an Islamic caliphate scared the regional governments and the US and EU in particular.

Global geo-politics, with the influence of the US, saw the ICU being branded as a radical group. This paved the way for the Ethiopian military invasion of 2006.

Even though the US had backed the Ethiopian invasion, Ethiopia was also invading Somalia for its own ends. One of them was routing out the ICU, said to be Eritrea’s proxy, and sympathetic to the rebel groups operating from Somalia with the “greater Somalia” agenda.

Ethiopian troops’ incursion into Somalia was laying the foundation for a fully-fledged African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in 2007. AMISOM was building on the 2005 regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development Peace Support Mission to Somalia. In late 2011, the United Nations Security Council slammed Eritrea for “funding and arming terrorist groups” in the region. Both Ethiopia and Kenya had for some time accused Eritrea of financing Al-Shabaab.

The Ethiopian occupation of Somalia brought down the ICU, which was split into two. Moderate elements of the ICU abandoned radicalism and joined the TFG while extremists founded Al-Shabaab. In less than a decade Al-Shabaab has transformed itself to become more than a regional militant organisation.

In 2012 the TFG’s mandate came to an end and the international community saw to it that a new government led by President Mohamud Hassan picks up from the gains made by the TFG.

Hassan’s election and the stability of Somalia as it is currently constituted have been in large measure due to AMISOM, which has also brought in its own dynamics.

Uganda’s People’s Defence Force (UPDF) is the largest contingent in AMISOM, contributing some 6,223 troops of AMISOM’s 22,623. Burundi comes second with 4,395 soldiers, followed by Ethiopia’s contribution of 4,395 troops and Kenya’s 3,664 respectively. The remaining 1,850 troops are shared between Djibouti and Sierra Leone respectively. Kenyan troops were not in the original AMISOM. However, after a series of attacks on Kenyan soil by Al-Shabaab, the Kenyan military made an incursion into Somalia and bulldozed the AU and the UN into being included in AMISOM even after protestations by the US. Nairobi succeeded. Neither Kenya nor Ethiopia have hidden their preferences on Somalian affairs. Kenya openly supports and designed the quasi-independent Jubaland administration in Somalia’s south, which acts as a buffer to its border with Somalia.

Ethiopia’s intentions are concordant to Kenya’s on Somaliland, which is a self-declared independent state. The Hassan-led Somalia’s federal government has little say on these two states.

The geo-politics, therefore, do not end with Ethiopia and Kenya; and they show no signs of subsiding. In late 2012 the UN panel of experts was just about to release a report accusing Uganda and Rwanda of arming the M23 rebels in DR Congo. The response by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was categorical and a lesson on international negotiations. Kampala threatened that it was going to withdraw all its troops from AMISOM. Knowing what was at stake, the UN was forced to cede its moral high ground and to edit the report in Uganda’s favour.

Looking back 60 years ago (since the Defence Pact came into being), Somalia’s expansionist agenda seems to have worked against it after all, leaving the Horn of Africa country badly wounded, with imminent calls for secession gaining traction within its federal states. All that the Pan-Somali agenda has achieved seems to have been in favour of its neighbours and to undermine Somalia’s own progress and identity. It is a heavy price for Mogadishu to pay and maybe it’s time for serious reflection.

Revisiting the 60-year-old pact
The busiest artery in the Kenyan capital, which hosts high human and vehicular traffic on any day, is Haile Selassie Avenue, named after Ethiopia’s Emperor. In Nairobi’s upmarket Kilimani suburb you will find Menelik Road and a raft of Ethiopian restaurants and Orthodox churches.

A short distance away from Kenya’s State House is the Ethiopian Embassy, testament to Kenya and Ethiopia’s deep connections stretching over six decades. In 1964, Kenyan founding father,

President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, broke international protocols and insisted that Selassie would be the first international Head of State he would meet. Liberia’s William Tubman, the first international leader to arrive in the newly independent state, docked in Mombasa but was forced to cool his heels as Selassie was so honoured.

The man who was at the centre of all presidential protocol arrangements, Duncan Ndegwa, recalls this event anecdotally in his book, “Walking in Kenyatta Struggles”.

The long history of the Kenya-Ethiopia Defence Pact remains as relevant today as it was at its first signing 60 years ago. At the time of signing this treaty in 1964, the two nations viewed Somalia as a threat due to the Horn of Africa nation’s irredentist ambitions. The “Greater Somalia” quest, whereby Mogadishu had on several occasions laid claim to parts of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia mainly inhabited by members of the Somali community, is what inspired this binding defence treaty.

The “Somali irredentist tendencies” is what has kept Nairobi and Addis Ababa glued together for generations. Fast-forward to 2015, and Somalia still lays claims to a large swathe of Kenya’s northern territory and southern Ethiopia’s territory.

Today Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s leader and Hailemariam Desalegn, the Ethiopian prime minister, have the same close relationship as Kenyatta’s and Selassie’s and they too recently renewed the defence pact.

But in all this – and as argued by African political pundits – it is crystal clear that Somalia has become a pawn in hardball international politics and sadly, may remain so into the distant future. As such, the 60-year-old defence pact regarding its neighbours will remain in place for many years to come.


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Written by Wanjohi Kabukuru

Wanjohi is an award-winning international environmental investigative journalist, whose specialty covers environment, geo-politics, business, conservation and the Indian Ocean marine development. Over the last 17 years Mr. Kabukuru has written extensively on energy, marine science and environmental conservation. His articles have been published in top-notch publications as African Business, African Banker, Inter Press Service (IPS), New African, BBC Focus on Africa, Mail & Guardian (South Africa), Africa Renewal, 100Reporters, and Radio France International (RFI) among numerous other publications.

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