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Kenyan peacekeepers accused of creating buffer state inside Somalia

Mogadishu says Nairobi is creating an autonomous state of Jubaland on its border and backing a hand-picked warlord to run it. It's asking Kenyan troops to leave.

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African Union peacekeepers take position outside the main UN compound, following an attack on it in Mogadishu, Somalia, June 19.

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/File

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Increasingly open efforts by Kenya to establish a small buffer state inside Somalia – one that Kenya holds sway in – is starting to create tensions and recrimination between what have been allies in the Horn of Africa.

The buffer state, or “security zone” as Kenyans are calling it, is known as Jubaland and sits just inside Somalia on its border with Kenya.

On July 1, and in angry tones, the government of Somalia asked Kenyan peacekeeping troops to leave the country – saying Nairobi was pushing to establish its own leader in Jubaland, and saying that in May, Kenyan troops took sides in factional fighting inKismayo, the largest port in the area, that killed 65 Somalis and wounded another 155.

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Kenya denies taking sides in Somalia and calls itself neutral, even though many analysts now agree that Nairobi is pursuing a security zone on its border aimed at repulsing militants like the Islamist radical group Al Shabab that are linked to Al Qaeda.

“Kenya has been seeking to establish a ‘state’ so that it can take care of its security interests. It had been neutral on the Somali issues from 1991-2011, but we think this changing,” says Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad, a Nairobi-based Horn of Africa specialist.

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A letter reveals new details

Tensions were exacerbated yesterday by a misdirected letter to the African Union from Fawzia Yusuf Adam, the Somali deputy prime minister and foreign minister, stating that Kenyan forces are not being neutral, and that the Kenyan commander in charge in the Jubaland area is “incompetent.”

The letter, obtained and authenticated by the BBC, was wrongly sent out to “press contacts” in addition to officials of the African Union – and is the first verification of the degree of anger and diplomacy by Mogadishu regarding Nairobi.

Last fall Kenyan troops based in Somalia took Kismayo, a strategic port some 300 miles south of Mogadishu, from the control of Al Shabab, which carries out attacks on Western and international groups on the Horn, most recently exploding a suicide bomb at a UN compound in Mogadishu.

To maintain control of Jubaland and Kismayo, Kenya has been tacitly backing Sheikh Ahmed Madobe. Mr. Madobe is a former warlord whose Ras Kamboni militia supported Kenyan troops since they entered Somalia in 2011 as part of the African Union contingent designed to stabilize Somalia, say officials and analysts.

In May, Mr. Madobe, using his militia as a political base, was elected president of Jubaland at a conference at Kismayo University attended by 550 delegates.

The current Somali government in Mogadishu – now recognized by Washington and the International Monetary Fund – rejected the election as unconstitutional.

Some five warlords in Jubaland currently are calling themselves president of the area; the Somali government does not recognize any of them.

'We are just trying to rebuild'

Kenyan military officials, such as spokesman Col. Cyrus Oguna, have stressed that Kenyan forces are neutral and merely trying to promote security and rebuild the country.

Yet “Kenya needs to be cautious," says Mr. Abdiwahab. "There is a complex web of politics involving clans that it must not lose sight of. I am afraid, if it has not understood this, then ... it’s making a political miscalculation that may jeopardize security in north eastern Kenya and parts of Somalia." 

For Fred Nyabera, a conflict resolution consultant in Nairobi, the Jubaland buffer zone may be an important idea, but it needs further thinking.

“Kenya needs security along the porous border and I think the buffer zone is important. It will contribute to the security of region including Somalia. The problem is that other actors in the region think that Kenya sees this only as a Kenyan issue,” says Mr. Nyabera.

Nyabera also says that Somalian officials must see the situation from Nairobi’s security perspective.

He warns, however, that if Kenyan authorities don’t make clear a time frame for their troops to leave, that they will be increasingly seen as “an occupying force. They need a clear calendar for exit.”

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