A week after Abiy Ahmed threatened to unseat Abdullahi Deni of Puntland, war erupted in Tigray after armed forces allied to TPLF attacked the Northern Command of ENDF, and captured its entire arsenal of ballistic missiles. These missiles were later used against Gondar and Bahir Dar in Amhara region, as well as Asmara in Eritrea. The initial intense phase of violent combat engagements rapidly smothered off as TPLF and its allied forces retreated from towns and villages in Tigray. By late November 2020, part of TPLF’s military leadership had slipped into Sudan where they were hosted by the Sudanese government according to diplomatic sources who spoke to Laura-Maï Gaveriaux & Noé Hochet-Bodin. Concurrently, its (TPLF) activism division called upon its regional allies and quickly made Nairobi the center of regional outreach and regional media node. For Kenya, its alliance with TPLF was largely dictated by the need to contain the Cushitic Alliance, a goal that would drive East African policymakers, American officials, and European politicians and activists to seek to achieve a new feat – place Abiy’s Ethiopia under a cordon sanitaire.
This raises a question, why would Kenya help place Ethiopia in a cordon sanitaire? Uganda’s government was also involved in achieving this feat, which has led to the relative isolation of Ethiopia within Africa – a fact that was expressed by none other than Abiy Ahmed when he lamented that leaders of other nations do not call to congratulate him for his victories. In late November 2021, Abiy’s government turned the tide in the Ethiopian civil war when most mainstream media channels and geopolitical analysts, including Caspian Report, were convinced that Abiy’s downfall was imminent. Matt Bryden and Rashid Abdi of Sahan Research – which owns The Somali Wire – triumphantly stated that “Addis is expected to fall in a matter of weeks, if not days“. However, by early December 2021, TDF was on the retreat as ENDF and allied Amhara (and Afar) militia gained ground, but this newfound victory has not been welcomed with much enthusiasm in the region. So, why do regional leaders want Abiy’s government to fail? Did Abiy’s government undermine their interests before the Ethiopian civil war broke out? How did the Cushitic Alliance contribute to this state of affairs?
New Horn of Instability
For Kenya, the defeat of TPLF in 2020 would have ushered in a new dispensation in the Horn of Africa (HoA) region that would end the Ethiopia-Kenya Strategic Alliance, and expose Kenya to hostile actions of the Tripartite Alliance. According to Professor Peter Kagwanja, the Ethiopia-Kenya strategic alliance “ensured that Kenya and Ethiopia coexisted and collaborated in a duality of power as two regional powers with little competition for legitimacy or influence” in HoA. With Abiy’s re-orientation of Ethiopia’s domestic and foreign policies that led to the birth of the Tripartite (Cushitic) Alliance, Kenya’s alliance with Ethiopia was tested. Kagwanja put it bluntly by saying that the Cushitic Alliance has empowered Somali terrorist insurgency in North-East Kenya – a state of affairs that threatens Kenya’s stability and in effect, botched Kenya-Ethiopia relations.
For Kenya, Abiy’s victory means instability seeping in from HoA into the East African Community (EAC). This presented a challenge for its policymakers. For the structural realists in Kenya, the best approach was to contain Ethiopia using an isolation policy that is normally used to control contagious diseases. This is the policy of cordon sanitaire, or sanitary cordon, that is put in place to contain a “diseased and/or infectious ideology” within hostile territory. So, what is this “diseased ideology” that can be infectious? Why did Kenya hope that this cordon sanitaire would lead to the creation of Limitrophe States that can work with EAC after the Tripartite Alliance was destroyed? How could these newly-created Limitrophe States contain the “diseased ideology”?
To understand this diseased ideology, there is a need to consider violent Somali jihad in Kenya.
Lethal Somali Jihad in Kenya
Somalis in North East Kenya have been accused of helping AlShabaab evict non-Somalis in the 3 counties of Wajir, Garissa, and Mandera so as to create a Somali-only region in preparation for secession from Kenya and joining Somalia. This observations of Somalis aiding al-Shabaab in Kenya is not limited to Kenyans and East Africans, but has also been noted by American and Europeans officials and counter-terrorism experts. The former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (in USG), Herman Jay Cohen, noted that “significant Somali population in #Kenya is infiltrated by al-Shabaab, and the terrorists in Somalia tend to use Kenyan territory as a safe haven after attacks in #Somalia”.
Discomfort with non-Somalis in the former Northeastern province has been expressed by the former Deputy Speaker of the Parliament of Kenya, Farah Maalim, who warned Somalis that: “When you tour North Eastern region. All the labourers doing construction work are immigrants like Kambas, Luos, and Abaluhya…30 years from now, they will be rightful residents with indigenous rights..more than the local population”. Another prominent Somali, Aden Duale, who was the Majority Leader in the National Assembly, also instigated Somalis “not to allow the Kamba register as voters in the area”. This call to keep (and kick) out non-Somalis from the 3 counties has been supported with violent kinetic actions by Somali politicians.
The governor of Mandera, Ali Roba, has been accused repeatedly of being a secessionist and al-Shabaab supporter who operates a contingent of Somali terrorists who have been destroying Safaricom masts and carting off the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio components of the Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) for sale to Hormund Telecom. Hormuud Telecom is a known financier of al-Shabaab, with Imam Mohammed Tawhidi – an Iranian-Australian – criticizing it for facilitating al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia.
A report published in October 2019 by the Nairobi-based International Policy Group (IPG) stated that:
“Intelligence reports have also linked Hormuud Telecom with the the(sic) Al-Shabaab attack on Dusit D2 complex in Nairobi on January 16, 2019, using its business office along Ring-Road, Kileleshwa area (about 100 meters from Dusit D2 building) to provide logistical and operational support to the attackers” (page 4).International Policy Group
The report also mentions that the founder of Hormuud Telecom, Ali Ahmed Nur Jim’ale, “operated the Investors Group, a front company based in Djibouti, that purchased weapons and ammunitions in support of extremist activities. The group aided the smuggling of small arms from Eritrea through Djibouti into the Ogaden region of Ethiopia” (IPG, page 9).
Degodia Somali and the Sessionist Insurgency in Kenya
What is interesting regarding Ali Roba and his relationship with al-Shabaab is that Roba belongs to the Garre people who self-identify with the Oromo tribe. In Mandera, the Garre people have had conflicts with the Degodia clan of the Somali tribe. Unlike the Garre, Degodia Somalis are known to be committed to using al-Shabaab as proxies to injure and weaken Kenya.
In an article written by Muhammed Abdullahi and published by the Kenyan e-Newspaper, The Star, on January 16, 2021, it was reported that President Mohammed Abdullahi “Farmaajo” was “actively sponsoring secession of” Somalis from Kenya, which in effect means that Farmaajo’s government wants to dismember Kenya. Abdullahi reported that Farmaajo (as head of the Federal Government of Somalia [FGS]) and his Intelligence chief, (who was) Fahad Yassin, had held meetings with Degodia Somalis (from Wajir and Mandera). Somalia’s politicians like Abdullahi Sheikh Ali and Jibril Alkutuby (a “Kenyan”-Somali who defected to Somalia to work for NISA despite holding a Kenyan passport) also attended these meetings.
These meetings allowed Somalia’s Intelligence Agency, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA), to appoint a Degodia from Mandera by the name of Rahma Mohamed Guliye to plan the launch of Degodia Flag as a symbol of commitment to a secessionist agenda. Guliye had attended meetings in Mogadishu alongside Maslaha Abdille, Ahmed Boray Arale, Caasho Bulsho, and Abdullahi Sheikh Ali (a deputy minister in Somalia). Guliye would then return to Kenya and attend a rally on November 29, 2020, in Eldas (in Wajir) that was graced by Abdi Rizack Somo and Adan Keynan – both Degodia politicians (ibid).
On November 29, 2020, a day after Abiy Ahmed Ali had declared victory over TPLF in Tigray, Guliye was joined by other Degodia politicians in Eastleigh, Nairobi, to launch the Degodia Flag and chart a way of “attaining independence” from Kenya. This flag was successfully launched. For Kenyan observers, the triumphant mood of “defeat” of TPLF and support that secessionist Islamist Somalis showed to Abiy’s government was a cause for concern.
Abdullahi explains the significance of the Tricolor Degodia flag as follows:
The launched Degodia flag is horizontal tricolour of black…blue Somalia flag with white star in the middle and red…During the launch, it was explained that the black represents Degodias living in Kenya, the Somalia flag represents their people living in Somalia and the red colour represents “The blood shed during the fight and struggle for the independence of Degodia community.”
Based on the aforementioned explanation, the way the flag is held carries a symbolic significance. If the Degodia flag is held with the Red Strip at the top, then it means that the Degodia have “liberated” themselves from Kenya. If it is held with the Black Strip at the top, then it means that Degodia Somalis are still under “Kenyan occupation”.
Jubilant Somali youth in Nairobi openly posed with the Degodia flag, though Degodia Somalis in Ethiopia did not raise the flag, which was interpreted by Kenyan Intelligence as intentional signaling to the Cushitic Alliance that Kenya will be destroyed. Abdullahi notes that the King of Degodia currently lives in Ethiopia. Most likely, this “Degodia King” must have known about this Flag creation agenda and even given his blessings to it.
Cowardice and Fecklessness in Confronting Islamic Terrorism in Kenya
In December 2009, the US Ambassador to Kenya, Ambassador Michael Ranneberger, reported that GoK had been training about 4,000 Somalis to fight al-Shabaab in the Juba region. The American embassy was rightfully concerned that this action was inimical to Kenya’s national interests, but the Kenyan military which was responsible for this covert training remained tightlipped as Somalis in Mandera and Garissa lamented that their sons were being lured by false promises by KDF, and ultimately deployed in Somalia to fight al-Shabaab. It is not only the Americans and Somalis who were angered by this secretive KDF operation, even GUK refused to sell weapons to be used to arm these Somalis who had been trained in Samburu and Tsavo West National Park. Ukraine would agree to sell weapons to be used to arm these Somalis if the Kenyan Government made an upfront payment (ibid).
Even though this secretive KDF project was started by Somalis in GoK who wanted to exploit the lack of strategic foresight of Kenyan politicians and military leaders, the shocking aspect of this project is that KDF & NIS wanted Kenyan taxpayers to fund it at the cost of US$173 million. Ambassador Ranneberger aptly observed that these Somali militias would likely not be loyal to Kenya and that KDF’s plans were disconnected from AMISOM’s offensive in late 2009 against al-Shabaab. The US Embassy in Nairobi was resolute that the “risks of employing Somali Kenyans in this effort (to combat al-Shabaab) outweigh any potential benefits”.
Ranneberger was proved right as these Somalis trained by KDF never made any meaningful contribution to the war against al-Shabaab in Gedo and Lower Jubba, and al-Shabaab reigned supreme in Gedo and Juba Valley from 2009 to late 2011. By mid-2011, AMISOM’s offensive was moving southwards towards the Jubba Valley, and according to Professor Horace Campbell, Somali smugglers in Kenya feared that their smuggling operation would be disrupted if Kismayo fell to AMISOM troops. In late September 2011, this cartel of Somali smugglers and their Somali allies in the GoK convinced the Kenyan government to deploy KDF into Somalia, an act that would later be described by the former Commander of the Kenyan Army, Retired General Lazarus Sumbeiywo as “the “dumbest thing” the government could have done“.
Nonetheless, KDF was in no respect looking to destroy al-Shabaab, a fact that was confirmed by the then Chief of Defence Forces (CDF), General Julius Waweru Karangi, who noted – in late October 2011 (two weeks after KDF had battled al-Shabaab in Somalia) – that “this campaign is not time bound. When the Kenya government and the people of this country feel that they are safe enough from the Al Shabab menace, we shall pull back. Key success factors or indicators will be in the form of a highly degraded Al Shabab capacity”. The remarks by the CDF are likely to have been informed by the realization that the Kenyan military was weaker than expected despite making rapid advances in the first week of Operation Linda Nchi which saw KDF reach within 5 kilometers of Afmadow town. At this point, KDF’s progress was halted by al-Shabaaab infantry, and it took KDF seven  months to take the town. The weakness of the Kenyan military was noted by David Anderson and Jacob McKnight who acknowledged that after al-Shabaab retreated from Kismayo in late September 2012, they effectively locked KDF in Kismayo despite the Somali jihadis being spread thin. In fact, KDF had captured Kismayo (its main objective) after being integrated into AMISOM in May 2012 after they had struggled to take Afmadow with assistance from the Ras Kamboni Brigade. Along the way to take Kismayo, KDF simply left lots of towns and villages under al-Shabaab control because they lacked the ability to defeat al-Shabaab in those towns. One of these towns is Badade which is located near the Kenya-Somalia border. So, what were Kenya’s real interests in crossing over into Somalia?
According to David Throup, the “deployment of KDF into Somalia was tied to the “personal economic and political interests of senior Kenyan politicians and soldiers from Northeastern Province’s Ogadeni Somali community””. This became evident after KDF took Kismayo whereupon it entered into a business partnership with charcoal traders – most of whom were al-Shabaab associates – with KDF rationalizing their newfound business alliance by stating that the businesspeople would have taken up arms against them (KDF). For al-Shabaab, it allowed charcoal to leave Badade and cross its territory until it reached Kismayo port. This was permitted as long as the charcoal traders paid taxes. Anderson and McKnight noted that “The architecture of the charcoal business has remained intact, therefore, beyond the fall of Kismayo, although its revenues are now divided three ways – between Al-Shabaab, the Ras Kamboni forces who run the port of Kismayo, and the Kenya business interests facilitated by the KDF”. For al-Shabaab, this trade provided much-needed revenue for acquiring resources to fight KDF, both in Somalia and in Kenya, with al-Shabaab scoring a major victory after destroying the Kenyan military base in el-Adde in January 2016. The Kenyan defeat in el-Adde is the first time al-Shabaab was accused of understating the number of Kenyan soldiers it had killed, while awestruck Western diplomats were shocked with how easily KDF had been defeated with one diplomat remarking:
“How can two hundred (200) Al-Shabaab walk across a field in broad daylight without the Kenyans noticing? Where were the KDF’s machine guns?” he asked. “This is contrary to everything they have been taught, and should be doing in a hostile environment.”Robyn Kriel and Briana Duggan reporting for CNN
Al-Shabaab would later on January 27, 2017, attack and destroy the KDF camp at Kulbiyow.
For Kenyans, this deployment to Somalia has led to al-Shabaab outwitting KDF and GoK, and ultimately establishing a near-permanent foothold in North-Eastern Kenya and Lamu counties, where the combined force of KDF and National Police Service (and their paramilitary associates) have failed to dislodge them. This became clear on January 5, 2020, when al-Shabaab militants attacked the American airfield at Camp Simba in Manda Bay, Lamu, with Americans lamenting about the cowardice of Kenyan soldiers who ran to “hid in the grass while other American troops and support staff were corralled into tents, with little protection, to wait out the battle”. This inability to score a definitive victory over al-Shabaab has incensed Kenyans, with many questioning what KDF is doing in Jubaland. Some Kenyan activists like Boniface Mwangi have called for KDF to be withdrawn from Somalia, a move that would jeopardize KDF’s vested business interests in Jubaland.
As mentioned in an earlier post, some Kenyan officials consider Ethiopia as the master of HoA and are quite happy to let Ethiopia exercise its dominance over the region. This has been the norm as attested by events in 2010 when GoK allowed ENDF to use the Kenyan territory of Mandera to push al-Shabaab out of Bulo Hawa in Gedo, Somalia. In September 2021, Kalonzo Musyoka – the former Vice President of Kenya – stated that AMISOM should leave Somalia and Ethiopia needs to move away from tribe-based regionalism, and criticized Meles Zenawi for introducing a constitutional clause that would allow any Ethiopian region to secede. Equally, Musyoka wished success to Abiy Ahmed and parted with the following remark “Let him (Abiy Ahmed) try his best to put the country together”.
Abiy’s Bungled Start
Abiy Ahmed rode to power on waves of hostility to TPLF and the political system it had created. Still, Abiy failed to build a strong central government and take complete control of the military but instead rested his political legitimacy on fighting TPLF, which had used EPRDF as a political vehicle to create a system of ethnic federalism that drained power from the Central government to ethnic-based regional states, thereby ensuring that a strong regional state (like Tigray) could take on the central government if need be.
Abiy Ahmed understood this reality and promptly signed a peace pact with TPLF’s arch-foe, Isaias Afwerki, so as to outflank the Tigray region should war erupt between the governments in Mekelle and Addis Ababa. This scheming and planned back-stabbing did sap political energy from his government and hamstrung the process of creating an effective bureaucracy. It also exposed his government to disastrous advice like overhauling Ethiopia’s system of alliances and building new alliances. To this end, Abiy Ahmed undermined Ethiopia-Kenya Strategic Alliance that underpinned IGAD, and instead built a new alliance dubbed the Tripartite Alliance, and informally described as the Cushitic Alliance. It is this Cushitic Alliance that would undermine IGAD, as well as force regional nations to place Ethiopia in a Cordon Sanitaire.
Cordon Sanitaire and the Diseased Nation
Ethiopians have shown their support to Abiy Ahmed and even re-elected him in the 2021 national polls. The victory of the Prosperity Party (PP) in the June 2021 national elections gives the party a popular mandate to chart its political path towards nationalism and abandon ethnic federalism which was the pillar of the TPLF-dominated EPRDF. This shift away from identity politics gives the Ethiopian government a new force for mass mobilization – nationalism. This new force would help GoE defeat TDF in Amhara and Afar regions in early December 2021, but this string of victories has not been welcomed by most governments in East Africa. The Juba-based Sudans Post even reports that Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, is unhappy that TPLF is retreating instead of taking Addis Ababa. This is despite the spokesman of TPLF, Reda Getachew, stating publicly that it is USG that discouraged TDF from marching into Addis Ababa unless it forms a coalition of rebels – a precondition that was reported in June 2021.
As noted in an earlier post, there are “concerns that the Cushitic Alliance bodes ill for regional peace“, and “this is worsened by the perception of threat posed by the Cushitic Alliance that has mainstreamed actors that GoK considers as rogue”. The rogue actors are al-Shabaab supporters who have been empowered by the Tripartite Alliance, hence making the core ideology of this alliance to be considered as a diseased ideology by many policymakers in Eastern Africa.
Charles Obbo noted that this (Tripartite) Alliance has vexed Yoweri Museveni who has realized that “the AMISOM mission could be unraveling…(and has) rounded on Somali politicians and threatened to withdraw the UPDF (from Somalia)”. This was after Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba – the Commander of Uganda’s Land Forces – tweeted in support of TPLF, an act that vexed many Ethiopians. According to Obbo, these tweets are an unofficial way of Museveni expressing displeasure with this alliance because it has been “indirectly enabling al-Shabaab by strengthening its alleged patron Afwerki…to (even) bludgeon Tigray”.
The Cushitic/Tripartite Alliance has seen Abiy making enemies from his former supporters, a fact that has been aggravated by hostility to AMISOM that this alliance has shown.
In March 1919, Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France, used the term cordon sanitaire to describe a form of ideological containment that used a system of regional alliances to ring off a “diseased nation” and isolate it from participating in affairs that impact the continent. The regional alliances exist as a defensive union against the diseased nation or group of nations. Initially, cordon sanitaire was used in agriculture to describe the creation of protective circles to keep out plant diseases. It was later adopted in the health sciences to describe a sanitary zone where people infected with a contagious disease are isolated and kept away from the general population. As used in agriculture and health sciences, cordon sanitaire is used as an infection control mechanism. It was later adopted in politics where it is still used to isolate and undermine political parties such as Vlaams Belang who cannot be constitutionally excluded from competitive democratic politics. This application to politics has extended into realism where cordon sanitaire is used to undermine governments that are considered inimical to regional wellbeing.
In international politics, the concept of cordon sanitaire is rooted in the idea that bad ideologies create diseased nations, and diseased nations need to be put in an isolation wing (to seclude them from the international community). This means that the ultimate goal of cordon sanitaire is to create a pariah state whose fate must be decided by other nations and hegemonic power brokers, just like a patient’s fate is decided by doctors and surgeons. For Ethiopia, its placement in cordon sanitaire means that its fate is to be discussed and decided upon without involving GoE, which explains why Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman would visit Kenya to discuss Ethiopian affairs with GoK and the TPLF representatives (that GoK hosts).
Though it cannot be stated when GoE was placed in a cordon sanitaire, what is clear is that this cordon sanitaire was created by African nations, including Kenya and Uganda, in November 2020 when war erupted in Tigray and the Trump’s administration showed little concern about this war. USG joined Kenya and Uganda in strengthening the cordon sanitaire after Biden was sworn into office in January 2021. In fact, C2FC is helping to consolidate and streghten it. This cordon sanitaire has successfully isolated Ethiopia as seen with Ethiopia’s weakness in GERD negotiations with Egypt, where Egypt has been able to garner support from the East African Community, much to the detriment of Ethiopia.
For any cordon sanitaire to be succesfully executed, the nations – diplomatically designated as limitrophe states – that border the “diseased nation” need to form a defensive union to rim/cage and isolate the “diseased nation” and be able to quarantine the “infectious ideology”. This shared interest in isolating Ethiopia explains why two limitrophe nations – Kenya and Sudan – which do not share a border have worked together against a common “adversary” i.e Abiy’s GoE. This also explains why GoK and its officials are distressed that their ally in Sudan, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok al-Kinani, has been undermined by the Sudanese military establishment which had overthrown him in October 2021 before reinstating him back in power a month later. Likewise, this cordon against Abiy’s GoE is not complete because it does not have the minimum of 3 limitrophe nations as required in neorealism. Still, it has helped to weaken and isolate Ethiopia.
For African governments, the cordon sanitaire allows them to de-emphasize GoE’s concerns and opinions, as seen with the recent recommendation by Kenya and Rwanda for Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to be elected for a second term as the Director-General of the World Health Organization, despite Abiy’s GoE refusing to nominate him (Dr.Tedros) for this second term. To further highlight the success of the cordon sanitaire, the African Union has never held a high-level joint meeting in the last quarter of 2021 to discuss how they could help Ethiopia, instead choosing to go to Kinshasa to discuss Positive Masculinity when TDF was at the outskirts of Debre Sina after capturing Shew Robit. Despite hosting the African Union headquarters, Abiy has been isolated from participating in most continental affairs – an effective mechanism of cordon sanitaire. Still, Ethiopians have been calling on Africans to rally behind them.
In August 2021, Geopolitics Press published a conversation that hinted at the success of the cordon sanitaire:
“Have you seen demonstrations in American and European cities that are held in support of the Ethiopian government? How many Africans outside the horn region do you see participating in those demonstrations?…How many Africans care about Abiy? How many outside the Horn show him support in social media, or in public statements?”Candid Conversation about the Ethiopian Crisis and its Prognosis
Regarding Abiy’s Ethiopia, Kenyan policymakers have been quite straightforward in making it clear that Kenya cannot sacrifice its relationship with USG and the EU for the sake of Ethiopia, especially now that Ethiopia is allied with Eritrea and Somalia in an alliance that Kenya considers as hostile and dangerous to its interests.
By late 2020, some Kenyan policymakers had concluded that Abiy’s regime was no longer interested in returning the Ethiopia-Kenya relationship to the pre-2018 status, and some complained that GoE never factored in Kenyan interests when making decisions about its regional policies that can affect Kenya. This set the stage for Ethiopia losing its special allied status in Kenya, and currently, some influential personalities in the Kenyan Government consider the breakup of Ethiopia as a better option to having Abiy in power, more so because the nations that will arise from Ethiopia’s collapse will likely make the Kenyan LAPSSET project viable, besides becoming Kenya’s allies and serving as new limitrophic buffer states to help contain instability in the collapsed HoA nations of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.
To Kenya, Abiy’s victory over TPLF means an empowered Somalia backed by the Cushitic Alliance that will soon invade Kenya and trigger off a new bloody war that Kenyan policymakers believe will destroy KDF as an institution and cripple the political order in Kenya, and in the worst-case scenario, dismember Kenya. To them, a defeated Abiy and dismemberment of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia is the best alternative.
Reaping the Whirlwind: Hormuud Entrepreneurs and the Resurgence of Al-Shabaab. Report of the Investigation into the link between Hormuud Telecom and the Al-Shabaab Operations in Somalia. Written and published by the International Policy Group, Nairobi, Kenya.