East Africa: Gen Kibochi - Why Kenya Is Tense Over Ethiopia War

Ethiopia map.

Kenya is seeking the United Nations' intervention to prevent an influx of refugees and weapons into the country due to the ongoing war in Ethiopia.

Chief of Defence Forces General Robert Kibochi said in an interview Wednesday that something needs to be done urgently as the war in the Northern Tigray region of Ethiopia escalates.

"The situation in Ethiopia is of great strategic importance to us. We have been raising this issue so that there is some kind of intervention, whether diplomatic or some other way, because Ethiopia - with its population of more than one million - is hugely strategic for us," said General Kibochi.

The UN refugee agency on Tuesday said it was extremely worried about the fate of thousands of Eritrean refugees currently trapped in two refugee camps in Ethiopia's Tigray region, as fighting between armed groups escalates in and around the camps.

Uphold obligations

The agency implored all parties to the conflict to uphold their obligations under international law, including respecting the civilian character of refugee camps, and the rights of refugees and all civilians to be protected from hostilities.

"An estimated 24,000 Eritrean refugees in Mai Aini and Adi Harush camps in Tigray's Mai Tsebri area are facing intimidation and harassment and living in constant anguish, as they are cut off from humanitarian assistance," the agency said on Tuesday.

This is happening at a time when Kenya is working towards implementing a roadmap towards humane management of refugees in both Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps, which are to be closed down by June 30, 2022.

The roadmap includes voluntary return for refugees in safety and dignity, departures to third countries under various arrangements and alternative stay options in Kenya for certain refugees from East African Community (EAC) countries.

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Q&A

How does it feel to be the Chief of Defence Forces?

To become a CDF is a huge thing because I joined the military at a very young age. The journey from being a second lieutenant to a four-star general has been long and therefore, it's a feeling of fulfilment from an individual perspective and also a huge responsibility. Remember you are taking security of the entire nation with yourself. The military as you know is an instrument of power that you would want to employ as the last resort, which means if you are going to go into a war, you take the whole country into yourself.

Is joining the military something you aspired to do while growing up?

I grew up in Nakuru County, a village called Njoro and schooled in an institution that is inside a military facility, an environment that informed my joining the force.

A combination of luck and hard work has propped me to this level because it is a very competitive position.

How were you recruited into the military?

During my time, it was very easy as many people did not want to join the military, unlike today. For us who were socialised within the military environment, we were very attracted to the uniform and therefore we joined. I actually had to run away from Form Five at Nyeri High School to join the military. My parents did not know that I was planning to join.

However, to a very large extent, not many people wanted to join the military. Many wanted to join the university and get a better job than becoming a soldier.

The situation has, however, changed today where we find many young people wanting to join. We recently had 4,300 slots that we had to distribute across the entire country. That means a few recruits per sub-county, which is a drop in the ocean.

How is today's recruit different from that of your generation?

These are two very different generations. We were hardened by the village from our long walks to school, which made training easy for us.

However, the generation of our children is driven to school all the time and therefore lacks the stamina we built back then. We are getting recruits who have to be handled very carefully. For example, if you tell some to take the 10km run you will lose them, and some break their limbs on the run. You cannot really compare kids brought up in North Eastern with those from Nairobi and Mombasa; they all have different levels of endurance. So we are having to change the curriculum dramatically to adapt to the generation of today.

Why do you check the recruits' dental formula?

It is important because the moment you join the defence forces, you have to be fit as a whole, to the extent that as you leave you also have to go through the medical board, which checks if anything happened to you during your tenure for compensation.

What is KDF doing to address mental health issues amongst its soldiers?

A lot of issues have affected not just the soldiers but also their families. A soldier who goes away for war must now go through a two-month counselling and therapy programme at our Langáta wellness centre. The same is also open to their families.

This was initiated upon realisation that a lot of our soldiers were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after going into Somalia.

What was your parents' reaction to your appointment as CDF?

They could not believe it. Becoming an army commander was huge for them. It blew up their excitement. Their emotions were quite something.

How are you received at home?

Civilians do not care whether you are in the force or not, or they know that I am the head of the military and that's it. All I know is that there's a lot of that aspiration to join the military in the village so you receive a lot of respect when in the village.

Do you sleep at night?

Yes, I do. We sleep short hours but yes we do because of course if you don't, obviously you cannot perform.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I am usually in the office by 6am. I am usually one of the early arrivals here so everyone has had to adjust to coming early. We are here that early to be able to understand what is going on particularly because we happen to have about 10,000 soldiers in active operations. Some 5,000 are in Somalia and the rest are spread all the way from Somalia to Boni forest, Mt Elgon, Moyale, Kapedo and so forth.

At 7am, I have to be able to brief the Commander-in-Chief on what is going on across the country. We also work very closely with the National Police Service and the National Intelligence Service and therefore we share information to get a common view of what is happening.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected military operations?

Covid-19 brought in a major change especially because we are not used to operating in masks but we have had to obviously adapt to that.

The areas we had a challenge in include recruiting. We had to spread our recent recruitment of 4,300 General Service Officers and 300 cadets over time to allow for testing, retesting and quarantining, which lasted an entire month.

We also had to book in their trainers in the training facility to create a bubble where nobody leaves and if they do leave, they go and come back after testing and still get to quarantine.

We have suffered a few fatalities, but not many. About one per cent. We are very fortunate that we have a very robust medical system. We established a facility in Kabete along Waiyaki Way and Lang'ata that even has ICU facilities for our soldiers.

How is the military addressing constant cases of corruption during recruitment?

The demand for jobs is what attracts the very young men and women into these con games. It is a societal issue. Right now we have about 13 cases of that nature.

However, internally, we have introduced new changes to our policy that provide that any soldier found to have participated in the malpractices is not just sent home as was happening initially. Now, those caught will get dismissed from service without benefits and go through a court martial that could in addition see them spend some time in jail. I assure Kenyans that we shall deal with this firmly.

In four months, it will be 10 years since Kenya's incursion into Somalia. What has been the impact of this?

We have liberated a lot of areas in Somalia, including 14 that we are operating from and opened up roads and helped communities living there resume normal businesses and take their children to school. Kismayu, for example, is today a bustling city that is full of life and no al-Shabaab militant can be seen there.

Secondly, we have been able to train and equip Somali security forces and work with them in operations courtesy of Amisom.

We have also been able to reduce the threat of terror significantly, though not entirely.

Are our troops still going to withdraw from Somalia in December?

Withdrawal in December shall not be withdrawal as we know it. Amisom has been funded primarily by the AU and the EU and this is coming to an end as the EU is stopping its support. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has called for a reconfiguration. We are getting into a situation where military force will need to be supported by other civilian operations.

What the UN has done is commission an independent assessment to look at what the future force requires. We are looking forward to between now and October when the UNSC will be sitting to deliberate on this. As a country, we are proposing a multidimensional force. Amisom has been purely and largely a military force. You cannot win such a war using military force alone, you need people to come build schools, hospitals and roads, which requires a civilian dimension.

We also need to see policing becoming a part of the future force. Today what happens if we have taken over a place e.g. Doble, which is now abuzz with activities, we take charge of policing and security. You need to get civilian police to come and do this job.

Secondly, the African Mission in Somalia has been severely underfunded, unlike the missions in Congo and South Sudan. We are thus recommending that the future force be funded by UNSC so that it becomes a UN-mandated force that is funded like any other.

The effects of the underfunding are that; we have had to create our own troops who are paid by the Kenyan government to supplement what ordinarily would have been paid for by the UNSC because we have a huge interest in protecting our Kenya-Somali border.

The Amisom mandate requires that troops are supported by 12 helicopters but we currently have six and they belong to Kenya and Uganda. The rest of the countries have not managed to provide theirs. You cannot manage to cover a country that huge and without road infrastructure without aerial support.

We are also seriously seeking to have al-Shabaab categorised as a terror organisation so that there are more resources coming in to fight the remaining threat.

Is KDF involved in indiscriminate attacks in Somalia that have caused deaths among civilian populations in lower Juba and Gedo regions?

An investigation was carried that established there was no Kenyan plane within the area they were talking about.

Those are false rumours linked to Somali National Army's coming close to Mandera, where they still are and in total violation of international norms.

What is your response to allegations that KDF soldiers have been involved in charcoal business in Somalia?

There has been no evidence linking Kenyan soldiers to those claims. The reason charcoal becomes an issue is that for the Somali people it is a source of income, so it is to al-Shabaab. This spurs competition between the locals and the militia and the fall guy always becomes the Kenyans troops. However, there is no evidence even by the UN of KDF's involvement in the trade. There is a lot of charcoal trade in Somalia, why don't they stop the business?

What is your response to recurring claims that al-Shabaab is holding prisoners of war from the El Adde attack of 2016?

In war, a person is only considered missing in action within the seven years that the individual is missing. During that period, many interventions are made to try and recover the missing persons and their dependants are eligible for the principal salary.

We cannot say for certain that al-Shabaab are holding our soldiers as prisoners of war and cannot verify if the ones projected on social media are actually prisoners of war or captured.

Where do we draw the line between primary responsibilities of KDF and civilian roles?

Security and development are intertwined. The Constitution has provided the mandate of KDF under article 241(b): KDF shall assist and cooperate with other authorities in areas of their competence, whether there is an emergency or disaster.

We have been assisting and cooperating with the Kenya Railways, Nairobi Metropolitan Services and Kenya Meat Commission (KMC). This cooperation is intended to utilise the specialisation areas we have within KDF. Take for example MV Uhuru, which was repaired by Navy engineers at a cost of Sh50 million, whereas the contractor was charging Sh1.5 billion. How much money did we save the taxpayer?

Sh600 million was used to refurbish KMC within four months and today the entity is supplying all security agencies with meat across the entire country and benefiting farmers - who bring their cattle there and are paid within 72 hours. Isn't that something KDF should be congratulated on instead of being vilified that we are becoming interventionists into other areas?

I think Kenyans would want a defence force that is not confined to the barracks and operations alone, for there are capabilities here that are paid for by the taxpayer. Why should those capabilities lie idle when they can be utilised in areas of nation building?

Kenyans' main concern with State agencies has been around corruption. Are you not concerned about cross-contamination?

No, what we want is to bring in a culture that has been lacking particularly in civilian institutions. The culture of discipline, integrity, commitment to the larger good and not just personal interests.

KDF's intention is not certainly to be there forever. The intention is to rework the processes and have a system that works. It is possible that in future, probably when this culture ingrains itself, civilian staff will be brought in.

mwambui@ke.nationmedia.com

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