The Nation (Nairobi)

5 November 2011

Kenya: The General Tasked With Wiping Out Al-Shabaab

A military general famed for revamping Kenya's peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone, among other heroics, is leading the war against Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Major-General Leonard Ngondi, a special forces officer described by colleagues as brilliant and a strategist, has been given the task of ridding the country of the menace caused by the militant group blamed for fanning insecurity in the Horn of Africa.

Slightly built and standing just about five feet tall, Maj-Gen Ngondi is not your typical military commander.

But behind the diminutive figure is a highly decorated and battle hardened soldier, the Sunday Nation has learnt in interviews with officers who have worked with him.

As the overall commander of the Kenyan troops, Maj-Gen Ngondi's main task is to ensure Al-Shabaab are defeated and the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) installed in parts of Southern Somalia.

Kenyan troops have already captured a majority of the Al- Shabaab strongholds in Southern Somalia but the ultimate aim is to seize the two key towns of Afmadow and Kismayu which serve as the militants' headquarters.

Described by a retired Kenya Army Commander who mentored him as a "rather soft and compassionate character", Gen Ngondi's military capabilities have been exhibited during the last few days.

Upon learning that the Al- Shabaab militants were using the Baidoa airstrip to ship in weapons which they intend to use against his troops, Gen Ngondi banned aircraft from landing at the airstrip.

"All aircraft are hereby warned not to land in Baidoa. Anyone violating this will be doing so at their peril," warned the man his comrades in the military describe as usually polite.

The terse statement uncharacteristic of the man also went ahead to warn that the Kenya military would bring down any aircraft hovering over the Southern Somalia skies near his troops' bases.

"On two occasions, KDF have observed an aircraft overfly our troops in the three sectors. The owners of the aircraft are hereby warned that KDF considers this as a security violation. Further unauthorised overflying on the said region will be considered a threat," he warned in communication sent out to the media by Major Emmanuel Chirchir.

The commander also warned that his troops would not tolerate the sight of donkeys along the Kenya/Somalia border as the Al-Shabaab were now using the beasts of burden to move weapons due to impassable roads as a result of the heavy rains pounding the region.

"Currently, Somalia is receiving heavy rainfall making the roads impassable. Information reaching us confirms that Al-Shabaab has resorted to using donkeys to transport their weapons," he stated before warning: "Thus, any large concentration and movement of loaded donkeys will be considered as Al-Shabaab activity. In addition we are also reliably informed that the cost of donkeys has risen from $150 to $200 for a donkey. Kenyans dealing in donkey trade along the Kenya-Somali border are advised not to sell their animals to Al-Shabaab as it would undermine our efforts in Somalia."

Boasting a 33-year experience in the military, Gen Ngondi has risen within the ranks to head the Eastern Command of the Kenya Army.

Born in 1960, Gen Ngondi joined the military in 1978 and had only served three years when elements within the Kenya Air Force attempted to overthrow the Government of then President Daniel Moi, an episode which led to a major purge in the country's armed forces.

Before being promoted to the rank of Major-General and appointed to head the Eastern Command in November last year, Mr Ngondi had held several positions of responsibility in the Kenya Army.

Besides leading the Kenyan battalion of the UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, the then Brigadier Ngondi was the commander in charge of Natural Fire, the largest combined exercise between Eastern African community nations and the United States. Held at Nginyang in northern Kenya in August 2006, the exercise entailed medical, veterinary and engineering civic affairs programmes in addition to military training.

As the Chief Instructor and Deputy Commandant of the Defence Staff College, he was also in the delegation of four senior Kenya military officials that visited the prestigious West Point Military Academy in the United States in January 2009.

The delegation received command, academic, military instruction and professional military ethic briefs during the tour.

But nothing would have prepared the 51-year-old career soldier for the current mission better than a deadly military assignment that was thrust on to his shoulders in 2000.

Then a Brigadier, a middle level rank in the Kenya Army, Gen Ngondi was appointed the Commander of the Kenyan battalion which was helping restore peace in the war-ravaged Sierra Leone under the auspices of the UN.

At a relatively young age of 40 years, the career military man had spent over half of his life serving in the Kenya Army when he arrived in Sierra Leone in February 2000 to head the Kenyan troops.

As the head of the Kenyan battalion, his main responsibilities included ensuring that all parties to the Sierra Leone conflict, including militants allied to the Revolutionary United Front led by the bloodthirsty tyrant Foday Sankoh, were disarmed, demobilised and reintegrated into society as peace loving citizens under what was known as the DDR programme.

His troops were tasked with providing security for the reception centres established in the Makeni and Makumb camps and the facilitation of humanitarian operations carried out in the Bombali and Tonkolili districts.

Testifying before the UN backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in March 2006, Maj-Gen Ngondi recounted the great lengths his troops went to contain the militants and ensure that peace and stability were restored in the war-ravaged West African nation.

He recounted to the trial chamber sitting in Freetown how Sankoh's militants captured and subsequently killed two Kenyan troops and injured seven in Makeni.

He also recounted how Sankoh's brutish combatants fired on the helicopter that had come to evacuate the injured men and continued to pursue Unamsil troops, resulting in further casualties.

It is as a result of Gen Ngondi's evidence that the UN backed court jailed three of Sankoh's commanders to a total of 120 years in April 2009.

Issa Sesay was sentenced to 52 years, Morris Kallon to 40 years and Augustine Gbao to 25 years.

They were found guilty in February of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the 1991-2001 conflict.

"The chamber concluded that the inherent gravity of the criminal acts for which Sesay, Kallon and Gbao have been convicted is exceptionally high," the judges said.

Tactics favoured by the rebels included amputating hands and arms or carving the initials Revolutionary United Front into the bodies of their victims.

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