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KDF's powerful general entrusted with withdrawal of troops from Somalia

By Abuga Makori in Nairobi , Garowe Online
Robert Kibochi is the new Chief of Defence Forces. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

NAIROBI, Kenya - Thursday's changes within the top ranks of Kenya Defense Forces [KDF] would mark the beginning of an important transition within the military, which has been involved in external aggression for the first time in the history of Kenya.

When President Uhuru Kenyatta promoted and appointed Lt. Gen Robert Kibochi, he not only entrusted him with the impending withdrawal of KDF troops from Somalia but to an extent, absorbed him to a powerful team that will oversee the transition in 2022.

Gen. Kibochi, 61, an army veteran whose career spans for four decades, will from May. 11 replace Navy man Gen. Samson Mwathethe, whose exploits in Somalia have faced fair public criticism, given a series of setbacks throughout his tenure.

KDF first invaded Somalia in pursuit of Al-Shabaab militants in 2011 then under Airman Gen. Julius Karangi, who retired in 2015. During his time, KDF seized strategic towns of Kismayo, Dhobley, and even Afmadow, a victory that defined his legacy, which is still close in Kenyan hearts.

But under Mwathethe, KDF recorded the highest fatalities in Somalia, the worst being El-Adde and Kulbiyow daring raids, which left over 300 soldiers dead in 2016 and 2017 respectively. At home, Al-Shabaab managed to unleash at Garissa University and Dusit D2 Hotel, with the deaths leaving over 170 dead.

Fair to say, he's however, exiting heads high having reformed KDF welfare, which can now pay the bereaved families within a record time. Also, the Navy man is credited for unveiling Modika Barracks in Garissa, home to 6th Brigade, which is at times used as a FOB for KDF troops in Somalia.

And the new boss, who enjoys a close relationship with President Uhuru Kenyatta, will now pick from Mwathethe, with his next big assignment being the strategic withdrawal of KDF troops from Somalia, whose AMISOM mandate expires in 2021.

“I look forward to working with these officers closely in service to our motherland. For you, General Mwathethe, I wish you fair winds following seas; and the very best in your future endeavors," Uhuru said in a statement, Thursday.

Withdrawal of KDF from Somalia

For months now, however, Gen. Kibochi, by the virtue of his previous position as Army Commander and Vice Chief of Defense Forces, has been actively involved in the withdrawal plan, which will be fully implemented by 2021.

KDF first joined the African Union force in 2013, slightly a year after the famous capture of Kismayo, a port city within Jubaland state. Since then, the force has played an indispensable role in establishing a functional government in Jubaland, which is led by Ahmed Madobe, a close ally of Nairobi, previously serving with Ras Kamboni Bridge.

At Jubaland, KDF mans Sectors II and VI, where it's also actively involved in providing essentials to the impoverished local population, which had suffered for years under the misrule of the Al-Qaida linked group. Some of the essentials provided include medical care and food.

An insider who spoke to Garowe Online said the KDF will pull the "last and final assault" against the militants in sections of Middle Juba and Gedo. After the assault, he added: "Our team will handover to Somali National Army [SNA] and leave.

By March, AMISOM leadership under Force Commander Lt. Gen Tigabu Yilma had withdrawn close to 1,000 troops of the 22,000 strong force, which is credited for inflicting defeat against Al-Shabaab militants in the capital, Mogadishu in 2011.

Under the Somalia Transition Plan, AMISOM is set to among others, oversee the much anticipated December polls, besides adequately training SNA troops who are supposed to assume all security functions. The US is also helping in training and equipping SNA, AFRICOM said in a recent statement.

In March, KDF handed Dhobley military base to SNA, just a month after another contingent of 3500 troops under Brig. Paul Njema, assumed security responsibilities in AMISOM jurisdictions within Jubaland. This indicated KDF's ongoing preparations to quit.

Kibochi's headache in Somalia

But even before he embarks on the anticipated withdrawal, Gen. Kibochi will probably have to play a major role in restoring harmony between KDF and the federal government of Somalia. In recent months, the two sides have been involved in unprecedented clashes, which might undermine the AMISOM objectives.

For instance, an intelligence report from KDF accused Somalia's spy agency NISA of "unscrupulous activities" with Al-Shabaab militants, who for a decade, have triggered unending security concerns within the Horn of Africa.

NISA, the report added, "directly finances Al-Shabaab besides sharing security briefs on KDF movements in Somalia". According to the report, the agency is directly responsible for "unprecedented attacks" against KDF, which are "coordinated and facilitated" with them.

But in a rejoinder, the FGS dismissed the allegations as "fake propaganda" aimed at spoiling the reputation of the agency, which works under former Al-Jazeera journalist Fahad Yasin. The agency, it added, "is dedicated to executing its agenda with unmatched professionalism".

At the Kenya-Somalia border in Gedo, troops from SNA and Jubaland forces, have been firing missiles against each other, with their aggression spilling over to Mandera. The fighting has been intense at Balad-Hawo, a town that borders Kenya to the far northeast.

Last week, Kenya warned Somalia against "continued provocation" of KDF, adding that "we shall be forced to retaliate if this does not stop". Northeastern regional coordinator Nicodemus Ndalana said SNA troops will meet "full wrath of KDF" if they don't stop.

The basic reason behind the clashes between the two sides is the unending animosity between Madobe and federal leader Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo. While KDF supports the Jubaland forces, SNA also enjoys the backing of ENDF, a move that further complicates the impasse.

However, both countries called for a ceasefire in Gedo in March, and a meeting that had been brokered by Ethiopia in Nairobi was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kibochi could play a role in reconciling the two parties.

Who is Gen. Kibochi?

Kibochi has been serving as Vice Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces following his elevation and appointment on July 13, 2018. He was enlisted into KDF on May 18, 1979, and underwent Officer Cadets training until March 30, 1980.

He was commissioned in the rank of second lieutenant and posted to Signals Battalion, reads part of his CV on the KDF website.

Kibochi has held various command and staff appointments, including his immediate former appointment as Commander of the Kenya Army, Assistant Chief of Defence Forces in charge of Operations, Plans, Doctrine and Training at Defence headquarters, Chief of Strategic Plans and Policy, Director of International Peace Support Training Centre, Col Operations Requirements and Commander Corps of Signals.

Other appointments include Chief of Staff at the Eastern Africa Standby Force, SO1 Records at Headquarter Kenya Army (HQ KA), SO1 Comms HQ KA, SO1 Mobilisation DHQ, SO1 Comms CIS DHQ, and SOII Operations and training.

Born in Nakuru on August 15, 1959, Kibochi has served in the military for 41 years in various positions in the Kenya Army until his appointment as Chief of Defence Forces on Thursday.

With his experience in the service, one insider said, “This is something he has been preparing for long. We believe he will deliver”. Currently, he's pursuing a Ph.D. in Conflict management, one of the fields that informed his appointment to the top KDF post.

In 2000 and 2001, the soft-spoken general served with the United Nations as Commander of the Kenyan Contingent in the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone. He was first made a Lieutenant General in 2016 and subsequently, appointed Kenya Army Commander.


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