Kenya/Somalia politics: Quick View - Reports of Kenyan army losses in Somalia

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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Kenya, Somalia


A January 27th attack by al-Shabab fighters on a Kenyan army base about 18 km inside the Somali border may have led to scores of casualties, although it remains uncertain which side suffered the most.


Al-Shabab, Somalia's main insurgent group, claims to have overrun the base at Kulbiyow after breaking through with a car bomb, resulting in the seizure or destruction of equipment and the killing of more than 50 Kenyan soldiers, while the remaining defenders fled. A Kenyan military spokesperson, however, denied that the base was overrun and said that more than 70 insurgents had been killed, for the loss of about ten on the Kenyan side, during the battle.

While both sides are skilled at propaganda, the al-Shabab version seems the more likely, in the wake of a similar and even more deadly attack on another Kenyan army base, at El Adde, in January 2016. Kenya initially denied al-Shabab's claims-and one year later is still covering up the full extent of the losses-but it seems likely that 100-180 Kenyan soldiers lost their lives in the army's biggest single defeat since entering southern Somalia (in 2011).

If al-Shabab's new claims are correct, it marks another setback for Kenya and raises serious questions about Kenya's ability to hold bases in the country. It also means the lessons that should have been learned at El Adde, in terms of preparation and tactics, have not been implemented, leaving the bases vulnerable to surprise attacks by a committed enemy.

The full truth will remain elusive, given the absence of any independent media in the war zone. Kenya will probably persist with its denials of heavy losses, for fear of turning public opinion against the war effort, especially in the run-up to the next election in August. Popular anger could boost support for the main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, who favours a phased withdrawal from Somalia. However, denial is never fully effective: the exact losses at El Adde, for example, may still be secret, but the defeat is an accepted fact. Denial also makes it more difficult to accept mistakes and implement remedies.

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