Standing Against the Warlords

Helicopters hovered overhead. Ambulances raced through crowded streets to hospitals around the city. As late as Sunday evening, more than 24 hours after the initial attack, bursts of gunfire echoed through the mall in central Nairobi where Somali terrorists killed 59 people and hold about 30 hostages. Their demand: that Kenya withdraw the forces it deployed to Somalia two years ago as part of an international effort to drive Islamist extremists known as Al Shabab out of Mogadishu and other major cities, and return the country to government rule and a semblance of normal life.

That demand was rejected, out of hand, at a press conference on Sunday by President Uhuru Kenyatta, who said he himself had lost loved ones in the heinous attack. Though new to office, he is not likely to be soft on terrorism. He sees his country imbedded in what he calls the “Indian Ocean Rim,” a semi-circle of fast-emerging economies from Singapore to India to his own Kenya. In his view, the future is one of robust economic growth and rapid social progress. But there are clouds on this potentially bright horizon — and regional terrorism is among the biggest. Across Kenya’s border to the east lies the chaos of Somalia.

Since 2011, Kenyan forces allied with Uganda and a handful of other African countries have fought to re-establish Somalia as a bona fide country, ruled by a functioning central government providing a modicum of social services and security to its people. To a surprising degree it has succeeded. It has driven Al Shabab’s warlords out of the capital and major cities. Piracy, once the scourge of the region’s coastal waters and the main source of the Islamists’ revenues, has been drastically reduced. International aid and investment is tentatively coming back into the country. If Somalia indeed has a chance to rejoin the community of functioning nations — and if Al Shabab is genuinely in retreat — it will be largely thanks to Kenya.

The warlords of Al Shabab in Somalia are hardly the only threat to the region’s security and future prosperity. Today, an arc of crisis stretches from Somalia on the Indian Ocean through Sudan and across the African Sahel.

Sudan, another of Kenya’s neighbors, is fractured by rebellions in its southern regions, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. To the northwest of Kenya is the increasingly internecine conflict in Darfur — Africa’s forgotten crisis. A decade after the fighting that some called a genocide, that conflict has entered a new chapter. Today, nomadic Arab tribes that once fought chiefly against black-skinned farmers have turned on one another. Last week in Nyala, Darfur’s largest city and one of the country’s commercial centers, Arab militias burned government offices. In armed clashes with government forces, dozens of people died, adding to a toll that will make this year the deadliest in Sudan’s recent history.

On-again, off-again fighting between Sudan and the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, has exacerbated the crisis. Oil production ceased in both countries for more than a year. That has meant that the government in Khartoum has lacked the financial wherewithal to buy off enemies and co-opt friends. In Darfur, warlords formerly allied with the regime — among them the infamous “Janjaweed” militias of an earlier era — have taken to raiding markets, shaking down merchants and preying on defenseless civilians. In essence, they are living off the land in the manner of barbarous knights of the darkest medieval times. Across much of the two Sudans, life for ordinary people has become a nightmare. It would not be unrealistic to see both countries disintegrate as fully functioning states within the next five years.

The picture across the broader Sahel is no less alarming. The French and U.N. missions have stabilized Mali, for now, but many diplomats agree it is only a matter of time before that conflict spreads elsewhere, with fiefdoms beyond government control sprouting up like poisonous mushrooms across an ever-widening geography of crisis. Libya is already a patchwork of warlordism — two countries, at best, with one armed camp entrenched in Benghazi and a “national” government in Tripoli that operates only at the license of its own armed groups.

We have only to look at Syria to see how quickly a strong centralized state can implode, like Lebanon before it. Whether or not President Bashar al-Assad remains in power, his country is no more. For years if not decades to come, the future is writ: rule by warlords, feuding with one another over the spoils of war and ideology, surviving by beggaring their increasingly impoverished and terrorized peoples.

Thankfully, this is not the trajectory of East Africa, let alone Kenya. If anything, the country is likely to emerge from this weekend’s trauma with the government’s determination to stand against terrorism even stronger. The reasons are obvious: you have only to cast your eyes elsewhere to see the penalties of failure.

Michael Meyer, former communications director for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. Mission in Darfur, is dean of the new graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi.

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