Does Kenya Have a "Project Jubaland" in Somalia?

By Joe Sullivan
Joe Sullivan
Dallas, Texas
Published 09 Nov 2011 20:14:00

Is Kenya promoting a new state in Somalia? A buffer zone, perhaps? According to some analysts of the Horn of Africa region, Kenya is reportedly "quietly" supporting the birth of a semi-autonomous Somali state called Jubaland or Azania. The new state is comprised of the three administrative Somali regions bordering Kenya's North Eastern Province — Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba, with a total population of around 1.5 million. The port city of Kismayu is the largest urban area in Jubaland.

Jubaland has witnessed numerous upheavals since central authority broke down in 1991 with the collapse of the authoritarian and unpopular government of Siad Barre. There were numerous battles in the region over several years.

In early September 1998, Mohammed Said "Morgan" Hersi, a general in the former national army who was also Barre's son-in-law and the former defense minister, declared Jubaland independent. But that independence didn't last for long: his opponents united as the Allied Somali Forces (ASF) and had seized control of Kismayo by June 1999. Led by Colonel Barre Adan Shire Hiiraale, the ASF administration renamed itself the Juba Valley Alliance in early 2001. In June 2001, an 11-member inter-clan council decided to ally the JVA with the newly-formed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was backed by the United Nations, the African Union, and the United States, among other powers.

From the outset, the TFG, which was initially based in Nairobi, was weak and had little control over any significant Somali territory, depending, instead, on the allegiance of regional groups like the ASF and various warlords.

In 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an organization with Islamist leanings, assumed control of much of Jubaland and other parts of southern Somalia and promptly imposed Sharia law. The TFG set to work to re-establish its authority. With the backing of the US and the tacit approval of the UN and the AU, it invited Ethiopia to send in troops in mid-2006. With the help of those Ethiopian troops, troops of the AU peacekeeping force, AMISOM, and air support by the United States, the TFG managed to drive out the ICU and consolidate its rule. One of the main theaters of the action against ICU was Ras Kamboni, near the Kenyan border, which had once served as a training camp for a militant Islamist group known as Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya. The Battle of Ras Kamboni began shortly after Ethiopian troops arrived. By the time it was over, on January 12, 2007, the TFG had nominal control over most of Somalia. Remnants of the militant groups scattered into nearby forests, and some just melted away into the population. It wouldn't be long before they returned in another guise.

As the Battle of Ras Kamboni raged, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, president and co-founder of the TFG and a highly decorated former colonel in the Somali Army, entered Mogadishu on January 8, 2007 for the first time since being elected to office. The TFG, which had by then set up a temporary administrative headquarters in Baidoa, relocated to the capital. It was the first time since the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991 that the federal government controlled most of the country.

Following its defeat, the ICU splintered into several different factions. Some of the more radical elements, including al-Shabaab, regrouped to continue their insurgency against the TFG and oppose the Ethiopian military presence in Somalia. Over the rest of 2007 and through 2008, al-Shabaab scored military victories against the TFG and its Ethiopian backers, seizing control of key towns and ports in central and southern Somalia. By the end of 2008, the group had gained control of Baidoa. By January 2009, the militias had managed to force the Ethiopian troops to retreat, leaving behind the ill-prepared and under-equipped AMISOM force to assist the TFG's even more ill-equipped troops.

With the TFG no longer in control of much of central and southern Somalia, there were fears that the country could break up into separate mini-states. That had already happened in the north, in the Puntland and Somaliland regions. Sure enough, in 2010, residents of the Juba region established a new secular regional administration, known as the Jubaland Initiative, that was indeed modeled after the autonomous Puntland and Somaliland governing structures. On April 3, 2011, it was announced that the new autonomous Jubaland administration would be referred to as Azania and would be led by Mohamed Abdi Mohamed, the former national minister of defense. (The name Azania has a long history along the eastern coast of Africa, as far south as the cape; during the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, it was bandied about as the new name for the post-apartheid nation, though that never came about).

Kenya has reportedly expressed an interest in helping to develop the new regional administration. Its main interest, it is said, is to establish a buffer zone between it and the Islamist insurgency in southern Somalia. This is one of the reasons that some analysts suspect Nairobi has been working on a plan to send forces into southern Somalia for some time, and the spate of kidnappings by Somali militants of Westerners on Kenyan soil merely gave the government the excuse and cover to launch the mission.

While most regional governments have expressed support for Kenya's incursion into Somalia, not everyone is happy about it. Ethiopia, in particular, is reportedly unhappy about the Jubaland Initiative and uncomfortable with Kenya's involvement in it. It is said to fear that, if successful, the project could have repurcussions in its own back yard, where it is in the throes of an armed struggle against rebels in the predominantly ethnic-Somali Ogaden region. The rebels say they seek independence from Ethiopia.

The TFG is also said to be unhappy about the Jubaland Initiative, even though it supports the Kenyan incursion. This is probably why its president, Sharif Ahmed, expressed reservations about the deployment of Kenyan troops shortly after the incursion was launched, ruffling some feathers in the process both in Mogadishu and Nairobi. But, the TFG may have little say in the matter. As things stand, it has little control over what happens in Jubaland, or pretty much anywhere else in Somalia outside of Mogadishu. And what control it has in Mogadishu is backed by the AU's AMISOM force, whose roughly 9,000 troops are concentrated in and around the capital. Until it can assert control over other parts of the near-anarchic nation, the TFG might have no choice but to go along with whatever happens in Jubaland. And that eventuality is partly in the hands of the Kenyan military, which sent an estimated 4,000 troops, backed by tanks, gunships and air and naval power, across the border some three weeks ago.

So, is there, indeed, a "project Jubaland"? Is it one of the reasons — perhaps the key reason — Kenya sent troops into Somalia? How long was the mission planned before the incursion began? The Kenya military brass have vehemently denied that the plan was years in the making, or that the incursion has any territorial designs, whether that be the creation of a buffer zone or even annexing some Somali territory. But, the reports suggesting Kenya has expressed interest in helping the Jubaland Initiative along certainly suggest the "buffer territory" theory has some legs.

Given Somalia's fractious and war-torn history, it is far from certain that the Jubaland Initiative will pan out, at least in the way Kenya might expect it to. Outside powers have found, to their chagrin, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to pacify Somalia. Perhaps only the Somalis can pacify themselves. Whether the Kenyan mission can bring about such an outcome remains to be seen in the days and months, perhaps years, ahead.

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