Five things we learnt from Somalia and Operation Linda Nchi


Over the last three weeks, I was transformed from reporting from Parliament to reporting from hot, humid and harsh Southern Somalia, where Operation Linda Nchi is taking place.

It has been an interesting and arresting experience, a rapid transformation from consorting with civilians and politicians to constantly being in the company of armed men.

From not knowing much about guns to getting the ability to tell an armoured from an unarmoured vehicle, different types of guns and telling military rank.

On Wednesday, November 2, I was at the media centre in Parliament taking notes about a motion to make the treatment of cancer free when the Daily Nation managing editor called me.

The ME usually does not talk to the reporters directly, as he leaves that to the News Editor, meaning when he does, there is something big he wants done- or there is big trouble over the person he is calling.

Covering Parliament comes with the risk of stepping on the highly sensitive toes of the politicians or rubbing their huge egos the wrong way.

This one time I failed to report on one’s contribution to debate and he wrote the CEO a two-page letter with four of the highlighted Hansard attached.

It was thus a nervous 20-minute walk to the office.

 It turned out that I was being asked to go to Somalia, where the Kenya Defence Forces have been engaged in Operation Linda Nchi. My colleagues and I were the first print journalists to be embedded with the Kenya Defence Forces in the operation we have christened the war with Al Shaabab.

I learnt a few things about Somalia, KDF and reporting about the operation, and I distil five here for your consumption. 

Somalia is a beautiful country

The image of Somalia as a war-torn state has been burned in our minds, courtesy of the images that have come out of that country over the last two decades.

But it is also a beautiful country, I found out during the short time I spent there.

Inland Somalia is typically a wilderness of short hard thorn trees with rough roads that would require four-wheel-drive vehicles to negotiate.

But Somalia has nice unspoilt beaches along its long coast- one of the longest in Africa- which are bordered by the azure alluring waters of the sea.

In places like Ras Kamboni and Bur Gabo, the thought that kept springing to my mind involved beach hotels selling fresh lobster and the tasty red snapper.

It is sad that all this has been going to waste because of all the fighting.

The fighting is not about to end

Last Thursday, we went to record the first distribution of relief food to the residents of Ras Kamboni by the Kenya Defence Forces.

The distribution was to take place at a field just outside the village in front of some damaged buildings that would have been government offices or the headquarters of a fish-trading company.

The food had been handed over to the Somali women and the Bajuni were waiting to take theirs away in donkey carts when files of youths appeared to the north of the field.

They were marching in files, hands holding onto the fronts of their trousers, leaning back slightly and throwing legs out in a peculiar fashion.

The journalists appeared amazed by the spectacle of the oddly marching youth but the rest appeared unfazed.

The photographer and cameraman appeared to be taking pictures of the comical marching as the soldiers watched.

Suddenly, the tall TFG man with a dyed beard rushed over to the officer on charge and said something through the translator.

The officer then told the cameraman and photographer the TFG chaps were uncomfortable about pictures of the training being taken.

But the guys already knew they would not be allowed to take the pictures and the cameras had not been switched on even.

The youths are being recruited into the TFG or the Ras Kamboni Brigade, and will soon receive their AK47s and bullets, and join the band of fighters.

Kenya often goes to sleep on its security

The areas along the coast from Lamu to Kismayu are populated by the Bajuni, a tribe of Bantu who speak a dialect of Swahili and whose main occupation is fishing.

Before Operation Linda Nchi began, the fishermen told us, they would regularly sail down to Lamu to sell fish, lobster and prawns, and thus make a tidy sum.

Their Kenyan counterparts would also sail to Ras Kamboni to buy the fish in bulk as well as carry out their own fishing in the rich waters, and then make their way back to Kenya.  

These fishermen are now out of work because of the ban on crossing the border into Kenya.

The ban was put in place because it was suspected the fishermen would also regularly transport grenades and arms for Al Shaabab into Kenya. You will also remember that colleague Alphonce Shiundu wrote about this earlier this year.

We were poking about at the destroyed Al Qaeda training camp at Oddo when a colleague received a call from Nairobi, to our utter surprise and wonder.

Oddo is about 10 or 15 kilometres inside Somalia, and the reception of the mobile network meant that the terrorists were probably able to communicate with their colleagues in Nairobi.

And this without having to use expensive or complicated satellite.

We have wondered, with these two examples in mind, where the Kenyan government and its friends were when the fishermen had such unfettered access to Kenya, and the terrorists were allowed to get so close they could chat with their friends in Nairobi.

War can be boring

Given their relative inexperience, the Kenya Defence Forces certainly did a good job in trying to convince Kenyans it was necessary to go into Somalia in hot pursuit of Al Shaabab.

They have at times been overzealous about it- the donkey Tweets easily come to mind here- and I think they even created an unrealistic impression of what was going on.

The Kenyan public has thus been hungry for the kind of action one sees in typical war movies and there have been concerns that either the army is very good, Al Shaabab very poor or something else is going on.

It is one thing to expect there to be shooting and violence on a daily basis and another to see the situation on the ground, where the rain has prevented movement and the army is just holding the areas it has taken.

Covering war can then get boring in these circumstances and I was mighty glad I carried a novel to while away the time between filing stories.

I also discovered Block’D, a game on my Nokia, which helped ease the boredom of sitting in the shade at Ras Kamboni. 

Soldiers are happy to live in the bush

Yassin Juma and I had discovered it was more comfortable spending the night in the open at Ras Kamboni, with the sound of the sea crashing into the beach and the stars staring down on us.

On the night it rained, I had elected to sleep inside the tent, but we still scrambled not to get wet, sealing cracks in the tent with duct tape as the water poured in.

We discovered the next morning that the soldiers who had been sleeping next to us in the open did not move an inch.

They told us they knew how to adapt when it begins raining—simply turn the sleeping bag around, move only when it begins to feel like it is flooding.

Chatting to the soldiers, we discovered that to them, living in the bush, dealing with mosquitoes, avoiding snakes, getting scorpion stings, killing spiders and mixing all their rations into one dish…is second nature.

Doing all that and getting the chance to deal with a real enemy gives them a thrill they would not get anywhere else.



Five things we learnt from Parliament this week

David Njuguna Mwaura Kiburi is too consistent for comfort

He arrives in Parliament on time, leaves his valuables at the searjent-at-arms, strides to the chambers, adjusts his spectacles, as they are in the habit of leaning too much to the left and takes his place at the third row of the seats on the right side of the Speaker’s chair, on the left as you walk in.
He will routinely be seen to lean over and chat with his neighbor, cast a critical eye at the Order Paper, one ear attuned to the goings-on at the seats below him and those opposite his vantage point, and then, when the matter is weighty enough, to rise on a point of order.
But we would notice him more and quote him some more in the news pages were he not a very dull person, for who else but a very dull person begins his sentences thus: “While commending the honourable minister for that very detailed answer….”
The MP for Lari is a consistent man, almost to the point where we begin to suspect that he is a military man, but consistency is the sort that gets you angry.
Speaker Kenneth Marende must have suffered the same irritation as we have from the confines of the media centre, for he rounded on David Njuguna Mwaura Kiburi when he made one more attempt at this consistency last Tuesday.
We reproduce the Hansard here by way of proof that our aim is neither to ridicule nor to condemn but to laugh quietly.

Mr. Njuguna: Mr. Speaker, Sir, thanking the Assistant Minister for the brief
answer that he has given—
Mr. Speaker: Order, Member for Lari! You know the Assistant Minister had
already been thanked by Ambassador Affey. So, try from now on, not to repeat the
thanking. Proceed!

We are now informed that the Member for Lari is not very happy about that episode.
We are pretty sure he is the only one that’s unhappy.

Family ties are thick in Kasarani

Tuesday morning found the matronly half of the Masha family seated at County Hall, resplendent in a maternity dress and matching headgear and happy, as it was smiling at the room, the colleagues in it and the younger brother seated across the room.
County Hall was expectant with the feeling that precedes a meeting of the great persons on the CIOC with any nominee, and the Masha there must have stirred, if not at the filial kick in her belly by the Masha she has been carrying therein, then at the fraternal feeling of sitting across from the younger brother presenting himself to a session with the vets.
It was by some standards a good day for the root family of this half of the Masha family and as we stop and contemplate the scene, a cloud passes over the green fields, for we hear the juggernaut of justice rolling our way.
Or rather, the way of the paternal half of the Masha family, which was at that moment probably ensconced between two robbers in one of the narrow basement cells at the Milimani Law Courts, which we imagine have begun to acquire the smell familiar to basement cells.
The paternal Masha, was soon dragged before an officer of the State, and accused of unlawfully taking so much money from the State, and therefore deserving seven years in jail.
Of course, we assume that half is innocent of taking money from the CDF account of the constituency represented by the maternal half and that everything will go swimmingly well.
But then we see the charge sheet, which informs us that the maternal half of the Masha family is one of the key witnesses for the State in that case.
The whole affair brought to mind the fine Sunday evening the maternal half of the Masha family harangued me for picking up some information about its alleged physical assault on the paternal half and calling for a clarification.
Shortly after that, I called the paternal half and it begged me seriously not to put a word down until we had spoken and it had explained how a simple blackout from too much tipple would have required three days in hospital, one of them at the Intensive Care Unit.

Spy tendencies, and spy blunders, never really go away

Books inspired by the Cold War inform us that spy agencies are very clever, especially when they desire to find out what information has been coming to those it likes to keep an eye on.
They have the ability to listen to your private conversations, log on to your email accounts, look through your timeline on Twitter and even befriend you on Facebook and read messages on your mobile phone even before you switch it on.
In the 1980s, they were perhaps very adept at taking letters out of boxes at the post office, opening them using steam and then resealing them and later returning them to your box.
Well, by the account given by Medical Services minister Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o, they are not very adept at doing that, so many years after we stopped using letters as a primary medium of communication.
According to the very Dickensian story narrated by the ODM secretary-general and firebrand, not only was the NSIS agent caught at the box, with his hands on his letters, the police were also not very clever at it.
We shall say nothing at his projections on that theme, but we have surely learnt that there are people who are interested in his letters.

There is more than one word for sycophant

The storm we promised here last week did blow through Parliament this week, not because we are very good prophets but because the Prime Minister is allowed 45 minutes every week to address MPs.
And boy were they waiting for him this time, the more because he had some long-awaited explaining to do.
Soon after he read his statement, and the clarifications began, the stage manager switched on the red lights, cued the music, did a little drumming and the play within the play began.
The 45-minute session went for more than double the time, the familiar stood on points of order, fire was summoned upon some by others, some wished that others were swept away in floods, but we still found that Parliament does not allow certain words.
So the next time someone disputes your assertion that they belong to the ass-kissers category, just tell them, as Kabando wa Kabando said, that they are simply “exceedingly and excessively loyal to the extent of being blind”.

A lot of noise is made during weekends

Reading the papers on Monday, one would have imagined that the nominees to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission would be rejected outright.
William Ruto was however heard somewhere in there saying that with the process of getting new commissioners having gone so far, it would be impossible to reverse it.
Nevertheless, Silas Muriuki, Mihika Linturi and Dr Boni Khalwale swore they would vote to reject that list.
They did not froth at the mouth but they swore it must happen.
At the appropriate time last Thursday, only Mwangi Kiunjuri protested, and because his protests are usually carried out without a lot of lobbying beforehand, they went unheard.
The list of nominees is now on its way to the house on the Hill, and the men and women on their way to Anniversary Towers.

At the time of writing this, I’m waiting for the commencement of yet another assignment. It could be a tough one but all signs are that it will be a good one.

We might have another stage for our five things to learn when this blog is next updated, and to say that we are not looking forward to it is to lie to you and to ourselves.
And you know what tragic things follow when one begins to lie to himself.