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Amisom now racing to pacify Somalia ahead of Kenya poll 0

Events have become hectic in Somalia in the past few days, with a major reconfiguration taking place of how the African Union Peace Keeping Mission will work towards stabilising the country. It is now emerging that Ethiopia is planning to withdraw its troops from Somalia at the end of April.

This will allow Uganda, Burundi and Kenya to take an expanded role in managing the stabilisation of Somalia, which is second phase of the peacekeeping strategy in that country. Ethiopia’s exit will also see Djibouti — which will send 1,000 soldiers — and Sierra Leone playing a role within Amisom starting in June.

According to insiders, there is a renewed sense of urgency within Amisom to complete the military operations by end of July, as the election fever in Kenya starts to gather pace. Kenya’s elections are closely watched in the region both for their potential to disrupt landlocked neighbours, and now for regional security, given the country’s current centrepiece role in Somalia.

(Read: Kenya polls body sets March elections date)

Besides political risk in Kenya, an equally unnerving event this week was the decision by Ethiopia to launch a surprise attack across the Eritrean border on Thursday. If Eritrea were to retaliate, it would lead to a full-scale war that would erode most of the gains that have been made in Somalia in the past six months.

(Read: Ethiopia in military strike inside Eritrea)

Ethiopia’s rush to get out of Somalia hardly a month since it re-entered surprised many. This is because in July 2006, it first launched an audacious invasion of Somalia when there was even no African Union peacekeeping force to protect the Transitional Federal Government that was holed up in Baidoa then, and to oust the radical Islamic Courts Union, which was running the show in Mogadishu. It withdrew more than a year later.

Addis Ababa’s latest campaign started in November last year. Observers speculate that the quick departure could be linked to missile and ground troops attacks on archrival Eritrea last Thursday.

Experts argue that either Ethiopia did not want to have to fight in two war theatres in the event that Eritrea did retaliate with a full war; or it feared that a prolonged presence could serve as rallying tool for Al Shabaab. Somalia and Ethiopia, one Muslim and the other Christian, have a difficult past. Many Somalis accuse Ethiopia of being at the heart of the 20-year old crisis, while Ethiopia perceives an unstable Somalia as a real security threat.

Ethiopia will continue to play its hand through the AU, but its departure happened after force commanders from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi, Djibouti and AU officials met and carried out a major reorganisation of how the Amisom operation will run.

In this new plan, Djibouti’s role will increase, and the areas that, especially, Burundi and Uganda cover, will also grow according to Uganda Army Commander, Gen Aronda Nyakairima. As a result, within the next few weeks, Burundi and Uganda each fly in 1,250 extra troops.

The Kenyan change

But it is in Kenya that the greatest change will be noticed in the public face of waging a war in a foreign land. Until now, Kenya military spokesmen Maj Emmanuel Chirchir, and Col Cyrus Oguna held frequent press briefings. Maj Chirchir, himself a lively soldier, in particular had a colourful and combative presence on the social media site Twitter, where he happily battled Al Shabaab militants and their propagandists.

However sources told The EastAfrican that the other regional countries in Somalia were unhappy because the open and freewheeling media approach to the war in Kenya was “causing too many new political problems.” So much so that the other countries want Kenya’s military public relations machine tamed.

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By Charles Onyango-ObboThe EastAfrican

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Direttore Responsabile Giuseppe Frangi