NGANGA: Lessons from war Kenya can learn in fighting terrorism

vehicles burning at the entrance of Dust hotel after a terror attack on January 15 2019/Monicah Mwangi
vehicles burning at the entrance of Dust hotel after a terror attack on January 15 2019/Monicah Mwangi

War is a continuation of politics by other means,

General Carl von Clausewitz said in the period after the Napoleonic Wars of 18th Century.

The subject of war has occupied the minds of great thinkers early as 5th Century BCE, with the accounts of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BCE. Before the modern state system as we know it today, territories, groups, kingdoms and other political units acquired wealth and expansion of territory through war. This was the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes that guided progress towards civilisation before the state was created. It is out of this chaotic history, that a country like our very own Kenya is a recognised state in the international system. “We” African states and other colonial entities were however not directly involved in the process of state making. Those who actually were at war made this decision for us.

War is an important component of statecraft. Charles Tilly, a scholar in the subject of statecraft observed, ”War made states, and states made war.” Tilly’s observations were that; it is out of a warring process that civilised political units emerged, particularly in Europe. These advanced political units emerged out of the need for conscription of soldiers into the “armies”, tax bureaus then emerged to collect money from the governed citizens so as to replenish the “armies”, and administrative imperatives emerged, to govern the affairs of the “militaries”. All these factors, combined with the civilianisation of individuals shifted the monopoly of the use of violence to an autonomous unit, which provided protection for the residents within its territorial boundaries.

Since the decision to be a state was made for colonial entities, including permanent boundaries inviolable by international law standards, African countries, the majority of which gained independence in the last five decade, have missed out on an important faction of statecraft, war. Out of war, nations have been forced to innovate new technologies to defend their peoples and territories. Out of war, governments have learnt the art of making long-term strategy for their countries and their people. They have developed advanced technologies to protect their sovereignties. They have become industrially advanced. These are the nations that have become great and important powers in the international arena. The Germanys’, France, Belgium, China, Japan and “Russias” of this world. War necessitated organised bureaucracies, created a sense of oneness among people, a sense of purpose and identity.

But all is not lost for African countries, for the nature of war has changed coming into the 21st


Although the nature of war is no longer a conventional affair between two or more regular armies, traditional principles of war such as unity of command, objective, offensive, surprise and simplicity are as effective today in fighting unconventional warfare. Unity of command, for example, ensures a quick responsiveness to the instruments of war, particularly weapons and personnel at the disposal of the officer in command. It also demands unifying and focusing of efforts by the different security apparatus in attaining their objective, while at the same time controlling and coordinating the efforts of non-military, non-security agencies such as the emergency rescue and save efforts.

This is a fundamental principle of war, which has often been lacking in the way that Kenya security forces dealt with past terror attacks such as the Westgate in September 2013. However, although the Westgate attack exposed the inexperience of Kenyan security forces in the art of direct combat, it provided an opportunity to learn and innovate better methods of countering similar threats.

Today’s war on terror is an unconventional and the principles that guide new forms of war have also changed. In the Military Review journal of 2006, new principles of war are suggested as being; perceived worthiness of the war, informed insight, strategic anchoring, durability, unity of effect, adaptability, engagement dominance and culminating power.

For countries such as Kenya which have not had experiences in battle combat — other than recently in Somalia — it has been a challenge to deal decisively with external threats. However, the cycles of attacks, including the Garissa University shooting of April 2015, have been our battleground, and with it opportunities for our security apparatus to experience and learn the art and science of war.

The lessons have been apparent in the response to Tuesday's 14 Riverside terrorist attack, with time taken to manage the crisis decreasing from the Westgate’s four days to16 hours. It marked improvement in time to respond to the crisis, and indeed, a lower, but still unfortunate number of casualties. The organisation of the Special Forces from the start to the end was also commendable, a departure from the confusion in the chain of command that marred the response at Westgate.

The war on terror is becoming the battle of the 21st Century, and with it, opportunities to spur growth in strategic planning, coordination and execution of the national security agenda of countries such as

Kenya, which have become targets of internal and external acts of terror.

The writer is a consultant at the Centre for International and Security Affairs