Five things we learnt from the KDF’s statement on El Adde

  1. The bombs were massive: General Mwathethe said there were three Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices. One got into the centre of the Kenya Defence Forces camp and was exploded and the two more blew up inside the camp in the course of the attack. “If you can imagine that one Vehicle-Borne went through the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi did that damage, you can imagine three of those in that small defensive position,” he said. Al Shabaab clearly have the capability to collect material and assemble it into ammunition that has a big impact.
  2. The impact was devastating: “I am aware that most of you are interested to know the figures. I’d like you to appreciate the briefing already given on the magnitude of this attack and therefore the need for proper identification of our fallen heroes, which in some cases will require DNA tests.” DNA testing takes long as samples have to be taken from the families first and then compared with that taken from the dead. It is basically a case of trial and error as they are basically checking whose genetic material matches with the samples available.
  3. Troops were probably not used to the environment and the terrain: General Mwathethe confirmed that they had just rotated into the deployment. They had also gone through the routine pre-deployment training although that is nothing like the real deal.
  4. We cannot be sure about whether the troops knew something was coming. “This is something that is yet to be verified. There is intelligence in the air every other day but I cannot say at the moment that there was specific intelligence for this attack,” said General Mwathethe. There has been talk from a Somalia National Army officer in charge of the Gedo region that the KDF had been informed about the imminent attack. The Board of Inquiry set up, and already on the ground as the CDF said, would help establish whether this is true.
  5. Al Shabaab are in possession of a serious load of arms, ammunition and equipment: The folks on the other side routinely carry a camera on these sort of missions and on Wednesday began putting up photographs of their exploits at El Adde. Among the equipment taken were Armoured Personnel Carriers, Land Rovers, trucks as well as armoured fighting vehicles. There is also a load of very bad images that would do you no good to look at. Gen Mwathethe said sending assistance by air, usually the game-changer when it comes to Al Shabaab- was ruled out because the fellows had also mounted anti-aircraft guns, probably the same they had taken from KDF.

Questions from El Adde

Like last Friday, they struck at dawn, had amassed fighters and equipment beforehand and were well prepared for what they knew awaited them. They were lucky last Friday.

At Hosingo on April 4, 2012, the battle lasted six hours, and they were not. The official report from the Kenya Defence Forces contained in their book on Operation Linda Nchi says about 800 Al Shabaab fighters were involved, 200 of whom died.

That was one of the biggest battles in Somalia in the course of the operation started in October 2011 by the KDF, who later rehatted and are now part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).

The Battle of Hosingo was won mainly because KDF knew in advance that the enemy was on its way and had prepared appropriately, with the commander in charge there also able to ask for reinforcement immediately he knew it was necessary.

Even as they attacked in eight waves of 50 to 60 fighters each time, it was possible for reinforcements in the form of fighter jets and helicopters to be called in, which was a game-changer.

That, and the experience from other engagements in Somalia since the start of the operation, point at areas from which hard questions could arise as the search and rescue mission continues in El Adde and the mourning families start to receive the bodies of their fallen sons and brothers.

Before an attack on a Kenyan base, Al Shabaab engage in typical behavior; the switching off or destruction of transmission masts ran by Hormuud, a major mobile phone service provider in Somalia, information amongst the locals and some locals fleeing the villages nearby.  They also attack from different directions.

Questions for the KDF personnel involved would centre on whether there was information, as there usually is, before the attack, whether that was acted upon and how it was done as well as how the camp responded to the attack. Was the camp exposed?

Yesterday, Voice of America reported the commander of Somali troops in Gedo region, General Abbas Ibrahim Gurey, alleging that the commander of the unit had been informed about the possibility of an attack hours before.

That would not come as a surprise as the Somalia National Army routinely share intelligence with the KDF. It would however raise questions on whether this intelligence was made available and whether and how it was acted upon.

Other reports from Somalia also suggest that the commander in charge of the camp and several other officers in the company that was in Somalia since January 2 had been taken hostage. While KDF has stated that Al Shabaab is using some of the captured personnel as human shields, it has revealed neither their identities nor ranks.

Military bases are organized such that the commander is in the most secure location, in the middle and surrounded by other personnel. The capture of the commander and other officers suggests that Al Shabaab were able to breach the defences.

Sleeping in Trenches

Typical sleeping arrangements in a base.

This would have been made possible by the vehicles loaded with explosives and driven by suicidal militants that are reported to have started off the attack.

This would in turn mean that the vehicles got past the camp’s defence positions located on its perimeter, which would have been equipped well enough to stop them or warn others in the camp of the approach of unknown or foreign vehicles.

That the commander could be captured, and some soldiers had to flee the camp and the enemy was able to take KDF’s vehicles and arms indicates that the camp was completely overran, the first time that has happened since the start of Kenya’s mission in Somalia.

Military authorities will make most of the decisions in the matter, whether there are individuals to go before a court martial or otherwise but some questions are bound to be asked when the dust settles and the mourning ends.

With Amisom having declared that its mission continues and Kenyan authorities going by that, the catastrophe in El Adde can only help plan for the future, not lead to a withdrawal of KDF from Somalia.

*A shorter  and edited version of this post was published by the Daily Nation on January 20, 2016.


February 2012. Somalia National Army soldiers had discovered an Improvised Explosive Device on the road to Billis Qooqani.

Five things I learnt from #FreeNgirachu

“You survived,” is what most people say when we meet nowadays. Others are shy to even mention it and will use all manner of veiled references. My cousins who sent messages of support reminded me when they came over last Christmas that they stood with me in those trying moments. We had a good laugh. An Administration Police officer who mans the police post at the shopping centre near my rural home asked to take photographs when we ran into each other at a bar over Christmas. Professional colleagues like to refer to me now as ‘jailbird’ and ‘convict’ in a good-natured way of course,  and I heard it whispered after we came back from a three-day trip to Kismayu with the Kenya Defence Forces that there had been some concern about my possibly accessing security material and officers given my recent history with the Interior ministry. I had planned to put down something in this private yet public space about the whole issue. It would have given me the opportunity to put something in this rarely-used blog and when the guys at WordPress sent me their annual email about how much I had posted here and who had read it (2,400 views by people from 43 countries), I hang my head in shame and promised to put this here.

  1. Politicians will almost always take advantage 

One of the posts on Facebook that caught my attention – there were quite a number- because I had just activated the feature that lets me approve to be tagged before the post appears on my page, was by someone called George Nyongesa. He announced: John Karobosta Ngirachu has been freed after the intervention of Cord lawyers James Orengo and Paul Mwangi. That was a lie, a blatant one at that, and I wrote: “He he he. That is a lie,” chuckled and moved on. Nyongesa later deleted my comment. But he was not alone. One senior politician, whose call was among the few I took, would later tell me the great lengths to which he personally went to get me freed. But that was polite and the conversation ended as he jokingly said I was nailed for my eagerness to go meet a potential source. A friend who works for another was however more demanding. We were talking about unrelated matters when he quipped, “Yaani hata hamuwezi sema asante kwa ile kazi tulifanya muachiliwe?” We were with Shiundu. I struggled to find measured words to tell him that freedom was attained mainly because of the refusal to make a statement without a lawyer present and partly due to the pressure the police came under to let me go and end the purported investigation because it was manifestly illegal and unnecessary.

Still on politicians. One MP who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee called me early November 11 and immediately launched into a denial of his very own Twitter account, which had since the story broke out been expressing dismay and shock and generally saying that the behaviour of the journalists who covered the meeting with the Interior Ministry bosses was a disgrace to the profession and that those who had covered the meeting would need to answer tough questions. To get on the right side of the wave, he had created another account. It was pitiable. Another one officiously told me: “That is not the official position of the Jubilee government.”

2. Police can work if they want
Fred, the officer who led the team that picked me up, cleverly preyed on my journalistic instincts. Well played, Fred. He was brought to me by my own cellphone signal, which they could have used to locate me at Parliament. It is also possible that they figured a Parliamentary reporter would be nowhere but Parliament when there are sittings. At the offices of the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, one officer would ask, “Unajiita Karobo?” A sign that they had trawled the foolishness I usually perform on Facebook. The thought that occurred to me then was: these people can work if the need arises.

3. Michael Joseph wasn’t wrong 

As is usual for smartphones in the mid-afternoon, mine was on the blink and I had just hooked it into the laptop for charging when the call from Fred, the head of the abducting platoon, came in. When I told my bosses that I had been picked up, they authorised the sending of a breaking news text and the creation of #FreeNgirachu. That’s when the calls started coming in. Most I ignored because the officers got alarmed after I described to my boss the car we were in (a white Toyota Land Cruiser), the street it was speeding on and the possible destination plus the number of people in it (four plus me. They sent four officers for one unarmed man) but others because the callers would have received the breaking news text and would just be seeking to verify whether what they had read is true. The Daily Nation sends you a text saying its Parliamentary Editor has been arrested and you call the Parliamentary Editor? It might be a natural reflex action but it is not advisable. Why? You end up flooding the person with so many calls that their phone might crash. Mine didn’t. It ran out of power eventually, fortunately after the last crucial conversation allowing the lawyers to come in, and when I switched it back on, was choking with the ‘I tried calling you’ message as well as actual messages for close to two hours. In the end, it actually makes more sense to call the person in the news the following day, or after Michael Joseph when he said Kenyans have peculiar calling habits.

4. People in power will often surprise you 
Throughout the ordeal, from the moment the four officers surrounded me and the reality of what was going on and what would follow began to sink in (and up to this moment, I think) the question that was on loop in my mind was, “Don’t these guys research on their suspects? Don’t they know how accessible the media can be?” I was sat behind the Cabinet Secretary, right next to his Personal Assistant, during the meeting where the letters we wrote about were read out. I had spoken to a representative from the ministry the following day, after the initial call from the police came. Had someone senior sought a meeting, they would have been told the entire backstory, which is not long because it would have been like speaking about what happened at a midday rally at Uhuru Park. Instead, here is a dramatic abduction, a hashtag, Kenya’s name abroad for all the wrong reasons, numerous calls, expense of resources chasing an innocent Kenyan as criminals ranging from those who steal billions by the pen to those who rape and murder for a few thousands roam free and the old man from the military banging tables and pointing fingers. Are these the people who run the government and mind our security, a friend later wondered over a drink. They are.

5. Media is awake and watching
“Mambo ya press na politichians sitakangi. Wanasumbua sana. Sasa wewe najua utaenda kujaza jina langu kwa magazeti,” John Kariuki, the Deputy Director in charge of investigations, said soon after I was led into his office. Kariuki had been tasked with handling the issue and when we met, he was a man under siege. His phone was ringing off the hook as calls came in from his bosses, journalists and from politicians. Because everybody involved was constantly on the phone, he was unable to reach Mutuma Mathiu, my boss, and this was one more source of frustration as I was also not cooperating with the request to write a statement without lawyers present. Online, #FreeNgirachu was merrily trending. My colleagues who run the social media pages were on a roll and had in the process even reposted online the story I was in trouble for, saying, “This is the story Nkaissery doesn’t want you to read.” The Media Council, the Editor’s Guild and the Kenya Parliamentary Journalists Association had made statements. Parliamentary journalists had forced the police at Parliament Police Station to show them the cells. The pressure was so much on the police that one felt sorry for them.