How America blocked Kenya’s Somali ambitions

By Martin Plaut – Africa editor, BBC World Service News

The United States did all it could to dissuade Kenya from attempting to establish a buffer state inside Somalia, to halt al Shabaab.  In a series of meetings detailed in cables in the Wikileaks archive, Senior American diplomats told the Kenyans they could not support the project, which had luke-warm support fromUganda and Ethiopia.

The aim of the Jubaland project – as detailed in the US embassy
cables –  was to halt the threat Kenya believed it faced from radical Islam, as propagated by the Somali movement, al-Shabaab. Kenya’s military
was training and equipping a force of Somalis whose mission was to enter Somalia and drive al-Shabaab away from the Kenyan border.

In 2009 and 2010 the Kenyan government did all it could to get the Americans to back the strategy. Kenyan Foreign Minister, Moses Wetangula, warned the American ambassador that prominent ethnic Somali politicians, including the Deputy Speaker were strong al-Shabaab supporters.

The Kenyans wanted the force to seize the port of Kismayo, which provides al-Shabaab with much of its income. Prime Minister, Raila Oginga is reported to have argued that instability in Somalia is causing instability in Kenya.
The Kenyan government could “no longer afford to sit on the sidelines,” he argued.

The Jubaland initiative, co-ordinated by the Prime Minister’s office, but jointly chaired with President Kibaki aimed to train 3,000 fighters, but in the event found that only 2,000 were available. The Kenyans estimated they would be up against between 1000 and 1,500 Islamist fighters in theJuba area.

Attempts to persuade the Americans appear to have reached a climax during the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in January 2010.  A high level delegation led by the Foreign Minister Wetangula met with the Assistant Secretary of State, Johnnie Carson.

Acknowledging that the Jubaland plan was risky, the Kenyan foreign minister argued the aim was not to create a rival to Somalia’s Transitional government. The Kenyans promised they were not attempting to establish a Kenyan controlled fiefdom and gave an assurance that there would not be a single Kenyan boot on Somali soil.

But despite Mr Wetangula reportedly “imploring” Mr Carson to consider assisting the plan, he made little headway. The American said he was worried the plan could backfire laid out his concerns.

“Noting that he had carefully weighed the pros and cons of the Kenyan proposal, A/S Carson worried that the initiative could backfire, warning that we did not want to create situations we cannot control, then highlighted his


  • the undertaking could be more complicated and much more  expensive than the Kenyans incursion could trigger clan and sub-clan rivalries that could worsen matters inLower Juba.
  • if  successful, a Lower Juba entity could  emerge as a rival to the TFG (Transitional Federal Government).
  • it was possible that the GOK (Government of Kenya) could be unwittingly providing  training to present or future members of the ONLF (Ogaden National Liberation Front.)
  • did the GOK have a plan should their troops be defeated?
  • was the GOK willing to persevere if their was a negative outcome?
  • what would be the domestic repercussions of a defeat?
  • what would be the GOK’s response if the TFG or the GOE (Government of Ethiopia) had a change of heart?


He concluded by suggesting that there shold be more conventional and convenient ways to accomplish the same end. Could, for example, the trained Somalis helpKenya to re-take Kismayo?”

In the end Mr Carson maintained deep reservations about the Jubaland initiative, but promised to “look into the feasibility of a US team going to Kenya to review the technical details of the Kenyan plan.”

Neither Uganda nor Ethiopia were won over. Uganda’s President Museveni described the Kenyan military as a career army and questioned their ability to sustain what he called “bush fighters.”  Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the Americans he was not enthusiastic about the Kenyan proposal, but had plans in place to limit any destabilisation of his country if the initiative did not succeed.  There the Wikileaks cables end.

Since 2010 Kenya’s Jubaland project has continued despite American  eservations.  In March 2011 two forces, armed, trained and backed by the Kenyans crossed into Somalia. One was led by the former Somali Defence Minister, Mohamed Abdi Mohammed best known as ‘Gandhi’ and a
force which had fallen out with al-Shabaab, the Raas-kambooni, led by  Sheikh Ahmed Madoobe. They took the border town of Dobley on the 4th of April this year.

Since then an Ethiopian backed force has taken an area of Somalia bordering on its territory in the Gedo region.  This is as far as the plan to create a buffer
state in southern Somalia has gone.  The port of Kismayo is still in the hands of
al-Shabaab and the aim of securing Kenya’s northern border remains a
distant objective.

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