For anyone that knows me, I like to ask the question ‘what if…?’ and the last few days have resulted in a lot of such questions.
About ten days ago, the Kenya Military formally went to war with a radicalized group of fundamentalists known as Al-Shabab. Al Shabab has been happily entrenched in southern Somalia for the last several years, and has recently won more notoriety for denying access to their areas for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Even more recently however, the Kenyan government has accused Al Shabab of entering Kenya and abducting several tourists and aid workers.
It is no surprise that Al Shabab have risen out of the anarchy in Somalia over the last two decades. I will be the first to admit that I am not a Somalia expert but it seems likely that in a place where governance of any sort is rare, the encouraging words of religiously affiliated extremists somehow allow people to have hope that somewhere, sometime, things will get better…or at least they will be forced to have said hope.
Kenya’s decision to go to war with Al Shabab and invade Somalia was an interesting one. Although certainly not surprising, the validity of timing was debatable. I am not really going to explore the intricacies of the war with Al Shabab from a military standpoint or as a focal point in continuation of the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror”. I think that many analysts have already focused on that and only time will tell whether or not Kenya’s war will turn into the protracted conflict that many are predicting. The only thing that I will say is that the recent truck bomb that went off in Mogadishu and killed over 70 students sitting for an entrance exam had all the sophisticated hallmarks of an increased Al Qaeda presence. I think that that really alarmed some people in Kenya’s echelons of power … only time will tell what happens on that front.
Instead, I will focus on the intricacies of the economic ramifications of the war with Al Shabab. Although many argue that Kenyans have benefited economically from the presence of massive aid operations servicing everyone from Rwanda to Sudan to Somalia, Kenyans have also bore a huge burden in terms of pressure to admit refugees, pressure on limited ecosystem goods and services and pressure on already stretched government services. Somalia has given Kenya millions of her people in Dadaab. Many more thousands of those displaced from Somalia end up languishing in Eastleigh with little or no status. Sometimes they even delegitimize ethnically Somali Kenyans by their propensity towards obtaining illegal paperwork. In addition to the burden of more refugees, the resulting insecurity in the many rural areas of Northeastern, Coast and Eastern Provinces has meant that effectively half the country is in a state of flux and formal economic stagnation. But perhaps most worrying, is the influx of extremist infiltrating the ranks of legitimate refugees. A spate of grenade attacks in Nairobi is an illustration of just how quickly Al Shabab can hit back at Kenya. With attacks on visitors subsequently injuring the tourist industry, still recovering from the post election violence and the global economic downturn, the economic prospects for Kenya could be dire indeed.
Now, let’s revisit the invasion of Somalia by the Kenyan army through a different lens. We all know that wars are very costly and this one between Kenya and Al Shabab will be no different. In fact, the Kenyan taxpayer will likely pay a massive bill for this little war over the next many many years to come. Does that sound unfair? Absolutely, and especially considering that the failed state status of Somalia has hardly anything to do with Kenyans. In fact, the anarchy in Somalia is quite old indeed. However, most experts agree that what was once fairly arcane, inter-clan hostility, kept in check by camel debt, was given a boost of virility by the dumping of high-tech weaponry on a region with little or no governance during the Cold War. The US and the USSR’s proxy war resulted in the deep erosion of traditional Somali safeguards such as environmental management, grazing management and rotation strategies and the camel debt. In effect, everyone defaulted on camel debt all at once…sound familiar? Anarchy ensued and when the US won the Cold War, no one was around to collect the billions of dollars worth of weaponry dumped on Somalia.
Cleaning up, containing and simply trying to keep track of the anarchy associated with the Somali failed state has been the job of successive Kenyan governments since the 1960s and the beginning of the shifta wars, with varying degrees of success, collaboration and corruption. Recently, the Kenya Police released their statistics on crime and successes against armed elements, criminal gangs and collection of illegal weapons. The results were as revealing as they were impressive. I found the “Operations against Aliens” section particularly interesting where the vast majority of cases were against Somalis.
Economically Kenya is dependent on a number of key sectors, especially horticulture and tourism. With this hard currency Kenya has done very well at repaying debts to the IMF for development loans and other stabilization measures. In the IMF’s most recent report on Kenya they rank it as a dependable and say that ‘Kenya has managed its debt relatively well and has regularly met its obligations…”. Either way you look at it though, Kenyans pay up to 24% of their GDP towards external debts of which 47% goes to IMF loans alone. Much of this has been borrowed to finance development and most importantly, to stabilize Kenya. Stabilize Kenya? The money is actually directly used to stabilize our rather volatile currency (volatile I might add, because investor confidence in the region is somewhat strained by the threat of anarchy from our neighbours…).
Every major bank, government, NGO, UN agency or industry leader has an office in Nairobi and the strategic importance is very clear. Kenya has been able to attract this level of investment because it has been the stable kid on the block., the forward thinking, well-educated, well connected place where people want to be.
Now drift with me a bit. When Germany lost the World Wars, countries in Europe sought payments for the damages inflicted upon them. Germany had to pay out, (and by some accounts are still paying out), billions of dollars of reparations. Concurrent to our little war here in Kenya, Greece is asking to default on her loans. Analysts point out that if Greece goes, Spain and Ireland could be close behind. Bailouts, bailouts and more bailouts for those places that are considered strategically important – all in the same vein as those banks that were “too big to fail”. So, here comes the big what if… What if Kenyans told the IMF to take their loan repayments and buzz off and instead asked for reparations from the US for its and the former Soviet Unions’ destabilizing impacts on the entire region? What if Kenyans say “You need to pay us for having us deal with your destabilizing mess in our region, while you enjoyed 20 years of prosperity after the Cold War”… now that is a big what if…but seriously, what if? The ramifications are endless… but then again, the Chinese don’t seem too worried about credit ratings*
When I started this blog, I made a point of emphasizing that this was a forum for debate. I do want to encourage that forum and I want to learn from you. So let’s hear your thoughts and comments.
* Please note, I am not advocating that Kenya default on financial obligations to the IMF or other external lending institutions, nor am I suggesting that Kenya should flout its commitment to international laws, judicial reforms and it’s commitments to development for its people. I am simply asking ‘what if…?’ in an effort to get to the point that the wealthiest countries in the world have direct obligations to the region for development assistance, stabilization, investment and governance and that those obligations need to extend well beyond bilateral trade obligations, structural adjustments and opening of free-market systems.