Before Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, some of its people engaged in a long insurgency called the Mau Mau War. No one really knows where the phrase ‘Mau Mau’ came from, although there are several theories. What is known for a fact is that the Kikuyu community began taking oaths some years after the end of World War II in order to fight for land and freedom. Scattered incidents throughout the White Highlands left the colonial settlers in a state of growing panic.
Elspeth Huxley, an early colonial settler in the Kikuyu highlands, explained the importance of respect in her book, Flame Trees of Thika: “to lack respect was a more serious crime than to neglect a child, bewitch a man or steal a cow… Indeed respect was the only protection available to Europeans who lived singly, or in scattered families, among thousands of Africans… This respect preserved them like an invisible coat of mail, or a form of magic, and seldom failed; but it had to be very carefully guarded.”
So when that invisible coat of respect was shredded, the British declared a state of emergency in October 1952 and arrested the suspected leaders of Mau Mau to forestall violence. The Kikuyu reaction marked the beginning of the Mau Mau uprising.
The uprising succeeded in its primary war aim, independence, but only through a painful defeat that scarred both its supporters and opponents. The British won the war, but only at the cost of losing their hallowed sense of the mission of the British Empire. So Kenya staggered into independence, alone of the countries in the region to have fought a war of liberation. Soon after, Kenya’s Government chose to use the same anti-Mau Mau British tactics to suppress Somali secessionists in the four-year Shifta War.
Kenya’s first generation avoided further entanglement in military conflicts. They had already tasted the bitter dregs of war, and had gagged on the taste.
All this changed in October with Kenya’s invasion of Somalia to fight the al-Shabaab Islamist group. The deployment of troops was done hastily, and caught most Kenyans as well as the international community off-guard. After all, the Kenyan military, though professionally run, was ‘not battle-tested’ and had instead slumbered contentedly through forty years of peace. Occasional irritants from Kenya’s neighbours had been endured stolidly. The army mainly turned the other cheek.
It seemed that this approach would continue when two tourists at the Kenyan Coast, and two foreign aid workers in a North Eastern refugee camp, were kidnapped by groups from Somalia and blamed on the al-Shabaab Islamist militia. Yet it all happened within one month.
The arrogance of kidnappers repeatedly crossing Kenya’s largely unmonitored border had suddenly become a serious security threat. Kenya could also no longer tolerate the big hit on its budding tourism sector caused by numerous tourist cancellations and travel warnings by foreign governments, all because of the kidnappings. Thus the Kenyan army surprised everyone by its quick mobilisation and invasion of Somalia in pursuit of al-Shabaab.
There was no formal declaration of war, save public statements by the Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs. No prior approval was obtained from Parliament, despite the provisions of Kenya’s one-year old Constitution. Even the identity of the kidnappers was unclear after al-Shabaab denied responsibility.
But Kenya quickly asserted a casus belli, obtained consent from Somalia’s weak Mogadishu-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and deployed in hot pursuit of al-Shabaab. After one week and a string of initial victories, Kenya is now aiming to capture the major Southern port of Kismayu and decapitate al-Shabaab’s revenue flow.
So is Kenya’s war against al Shabaab justified?
Thomas Aquinas highlighted three conditions necessary for a just war. First, war should be waged under the authority of the sovereign. Second, a just cause is required. And third, it must be waged for a right intention. Aquinas opposed pacifism, the conviction that war is always evil, as contrary to right reason. He insisted, “Those who wage war justly aim at peace, and so they are not opposed to peace, except the evil peace.”
The real issue in the choice of war, though, is the question of proportionality. War should only be used as the last option due to the ills it brings. This implies that the damage endured from the aggressor is grave and certain. Also, there must be serious prospects of success, and the war should not produce evils graver than those to be eliminated.
Because war is complex, the choice of war (jus ad bellum) must be supplemented by right conduct during war (jus in bello) and at its termination (jus post bellum). Even just causes are easily perverted during the heat of conflict. Thus did the Prussian king Frederick the Great (1712-1786), an outstanding military tactician, observe, “Every man has a wild beast within him.” He was merely echoing Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, who wrote about the primitive man in a state of war, whose life was ‘nasty, brutish, short.’
Good war aims easily become elusive. The First World War, called ‘the war to end all wars’, failed spectacularly in its primary aim. World War II, called ‘the good war’, caused the deaths of over sixty million. So we all yearn for the end of serious conflict, a state that Francis Fukuyama anticipated in his 1992 book, The End of History. But as Chesterton cautioned, “War can never be impossible unless liberty is impossible.”
Kenya’s invasion of Somalia to fight the al Shabaab militia is the result of gradually-rising provocation. It is a battle for the security and integrity of Kenya’s borders. But since it is war, then it must comply with international law, especially the United Nations Charter, and with Kenya’s Constitution, which requires the approval of Parliament. The war aims must be clear, the military action conducted with precision and the conflict duration limited.
In a New York Times article last April on war crimes during the Afghanistan conflict, American World War II chief of staff George Marshall was quoted as saying: “Once an army [goes to] war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn… how to keep the beast under control, both in himself and in his men.”
After a long period of abstinence, Kenya has found itself in another October conflict. And already it is discovering that war, despite its tragedies, is rather addictive. It has its endorphins, its bravado and its bloodlust. Kenya may be justified in going to war against al-Shabaab in Somalia. But for the war to remain just, its military will have to learn to keep down the beast within, its bloodlust and war madness.
Charles Kanjama is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya.