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October 21, 2018

Do Kulbiyow attack numbers matter?

A structure at the KDF's base in Kulbiyow, Somalia, goes up in flames during an attack by al Shabaab militants, January 27, 2016. /COURTESY
A structure at the KDF's base in Kulbiyow, Somalia, goes up in flames during an attack by al Shabaab militants, January 27, 2016. /COURTESY

In the wake of last week’s sacking of a Kenya Defense Forces base in Somalia by the al Shabaab terror group, the Kenyan government’s communications effort have once again come under a spotlight.

The country had just marked the first anniversary of a similar attack on another KDF camp in the Somali town of El Adde in which close to two hundred Kenyan soldiers were estimated to have been killed. Estimated because the government has never released an official tally of dead, injured and captured. Instead, after initially issuing a few statements offering a chronology of events and promising to answer queries later, it has subsequently maintained a studious silence.

This time, after news of the Kulbiyow attack broke on Friday, the KDF initially put out a statement stating categorically that the attack had been repulsed and that the camp had not been overrun. A second statement later in the day asserted that nine soldiers, including two officers, had lost their lives and another 15 had been injured. It also claimed that “scores” of al Shabaab militants had been killed.

However, subsequent news reports, some of which claimed to have interviewed survivors of the attack, have raised serious doubts about the veracity of the KDF account. The al Shabaab, who run a pretty sophisticated propaganda machine, initially claimed to have killed over 50 soldiers and subsequently revised that figure upwards. Earlier this week, the group released gruesome pictures purportedly taken after the attack to back up their claims. The Standard newspaper, citing sources within the KDF, also reported that at least 68 Kenyan troops had died. A more detailed account in the Daily Nation also painted a grim picture of the camp being overrun and “pandemonium” as soldiers fled into the bush.

Following these revelations, the KDF and government communications appear to have retreated into silence. No further statements have been issued and there has been no public comment from their Commander-in-Chief.

Does any of this matter? Not if you ask the pro-government online army on Twitter. Any attempt to seek clarification is met with accusations of propagandizing for the al Shabaab and having a morbid interest in death counts, as well as patently false claims that militaries across the world never reveal the true extent of their battlefield losses. It is not important to know how many died, so the argument goes, since even one is too many. Telling the truth about casualties, it is claimed, is demoralizing to our soldiers and gifts the terrorists a propaganda coup.

Yet the trouble that the government and the KDF go to to hide them itself demonstrates that the numbers do matter. The fact is, they are not being hidden from al Shabaab but from Kenyans and it is the official silences and mendacity, not the truth, that allow the terrorists’ propaganda to rule the airwaves unchallenged.

Rather than protecting soldiers’ morale as is claimed, government propaganda has been aimed at protecting their superiors’ and civilian overseers’ backsides. Revealing the real extent of deaths risks rousing public anger, stoking uncomfortable questions and demands for people to held to account. Yet, questions should and must be asked. Why did the KDF succumb to an attack that was a carbon copy of the El Adde incident, where it had suffered its biggest ever military loss? Why were lessons seemingly not learnt? What are the systemic failures that led to this and who should be held to account? As the Standard editorialized, “losing more than 250 soldiers in 54 weeks in two identical attacks speaks not to the consequence of going to war but the utter incompetence of the high command.”

The numbers matter. The truth matters. The constitution subordinates the KDF to civilian authority and, in the end, its commanders and civilian overlords are ultimately answerable to the Kenyan people. There is an implicit bargain we have with the troops. They will follow orders and risk their lives to defend us and accomplish the mission they are given but we will hold their bosses to account to ensure that those orders and missions are reasonable and that they are properly equipped and facilitated to achieve them. That requires us to have an accurate understanding of the realities they face and the consequences these have. The silence over the needless waste of lives violates that bargain.

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