The destruction of telecom towers in Somalia, allegedly by Kenyan forces, will damage Somalia’s economy and could destabilise the entire Horn of Africa.
Two weeks ago, I visited Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. The first thing one might notice is the vast number of daily transactions that happen via Hormuud Telecom’s EVCPlus (from bus fare to shopping to buying properties) — a mobile money transfer service that transcends the banking system in the country.
The service is a lifeline in Somalia and leads to massive economic damage if Hormuud’s network stops, and that is precisely what happened on 22 August 2019. The Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) serving under AMISOM—the African Union peacekeeping troops in Somalia—attacked a Hormuud Telecom mast, or cell tower, in Aws-kurun vicinity in Gedo, southern Somalia, disconnecting up to 4,000 people.
There have been twelve attacks of this kind in less than two years with previous incidents killing and injuring Hormuud’s staff, according to a press release by the company following the latest incident.
A recent report by Hormuud also claimed, “the perpetrators of every attack came over the border into Somalia, from Kenya…and the vehicles, equipment and clothing used by the assailants can be attributed to that of the Kenyan Defense Force.”
The Somali telecommunications Minister said, “an enemy” had openly attacked the Somali economy and asked, “AMISOM to engage with the Somali government in the investigation of these repeated attacks and believe it is important to take appropriate action against this adversary who targets our economy and business per international law.”
Hormuud—the largest taxpayer and employer in Somalia—was established in 2002 during a time when Somalia was in chaos and has since thrived. Hormuud’s network currently covers more than 80 percent of south and central Somalia, serves 4 million mobile subscribers and claims to have created over 20,000 jobs.
The company provides a range of other services including “financial support in the fields of education, health, job and income creation, fire-fighting, emergency, developmental and skills training,” according to its website.
War of Masts
Several Hormuud Telecom masts, or cell towers, in Jubaland, where the KDF is deployed, were previously attacked and destroyed. Although the Kenyan government denies involvement, Kenyan security sources indicate the destruction of the Hormuud facilities were reprisal attacks since Al Shabaab frequently targets Safaricom masts in northern Kenya.
When I asked if Hormuud has something to do with Al Shabaab raids in Kenya or if the firm finances the group, Abdirashid Ali, Chief Communications Officer of Hormuud, told me, “the company strictly abides by the national and international laws regarding terrorism. The same reports you’ve mentioned have earlier alleged the company of supporting those militants, however, they retracted their allegations and removed them.”
Ali added that Hormuud has had ten employees killed by Al Shabab and that the terrorist group forcibly bans their network and works against its expansion.
Another reason behind Kenya’s alleged destruction of Hormuud facilities could be a competition between Hormuud and Kenya’s largest telecom operator, Safaricom, over the border areas and KDF-controlled territory in Somalia.
A senior Hormuud official who did not want to be named told me Safaricom is eyeing to enter the “Somali market where KDF operate.”
The source added, “Kenya had previously asked us via the Somali embassy in Nairobi to move our telecom towers 50km back from Kenyan-Somali border, but we didn’t back down. We know that some of the Safaricom officials are advisors at the Kenyan statehouse and push for the destruction of Hormuud masts in the Gedo region. Recently, these forces unsuccessfully tried to list Al-Shabab as a terrorist organisation under Security Council Resolution 1267, which would have banned business firms and humanitarian groups to operate in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas.”
Abdullahi Osman, CEO of Hormuud Foundation, says, “Safaricom SIM cards are sold, and its services are used inside Somalia, but selling and/or using Hormuud services on the other side of the border is illegal and punishable.”
Safaricom was not as open to speaking and have yet to respond to these allegations despite repeated requests for comment.
The ‘war of masts’ benefits no one. First, the destruction of Hormuud communication centres is counter-productive for Kenya’s security interests and the international community’s efforts to stabilise Somalia.
Kenya has long been engaged in peace-making in Somalia and deployed troops to help fight Al Shabab and help Somalia restore its statehood. Kenya has generously hosted thousands of Somali refugees since 1991. The UN Refugee Agency has recently begun repatriating refugees back to Somalia voluntarily. The war of masts could discourage this return.
Secondly, Hormuud is the largest employer in Somalia and targeting it will not only destroy the livelihoods of thousands of Somali households but will also stress the ailing Somali economy.
Reports estimated that 90 percent of the Somali economy comes from the private sector. Thus, the private sector in general and in particular Hormuud Telecom, as the biggest private enterprise, is essential to the Somali economy.
Hormuud Foundation CEO Abdullahi Osman says that every communication mast destroyed by the Kenyan forces in the last two years is worth half a million dollars and that the recent attack destroyed a Hormuud centre plus two telecom masts owned by other Somali telecom firms.
“This shows that Kenya is not only at war with Hormuud, but also with the entire Somali economy. Kenya cannot be both a peacekeeper in our country and destroyer of our economy at the same time,” says Osman.
The sabotage also disrupts vulnerable rural communities who exclusively rely on the ECVPlus. Aid agencies in Somalia rely heavily on the Hormuud network and ECVPlus to respond to drought-affected rural communities and distribute food and emergency aid.
Mukhtar Hussein, Director General of Somalia Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management, told me that they use the telecom networks to communicate with communities in the affected areas and transfer cash to them for emergency food and supplies.
When asked if and how the destruction of Hormuud facilities had affected their operations, he replied, “Yes, of course. Destruction of the telecom facilities negatively affects our ability to respond to the emergency crisis.”
A knock-on effect of this disruption is displacement, according to Hormuud.
The recurrent raids on Hormuud facilities by the KDF could further serve as a recruiting tool for Al Shabaab. Kenya initially deployed its troops to Somalia in October 2011 after Al Shabaab reportedly abducted aid workers in the country. It later decided to contribute forces to the AMISOM mission in Somalia to help bring peace to its neighbour.
Since then, the group has waged wars against Kenya, killing hundreds of people on Kenyan soil and damaging its tourism industry. Communities along the border and in rural areas whose lives and businesses are disrupted by the raids could well be pushed to join Al Shabaab.
Finally, this unnecessary war could hamper regional security, notwithstanding that Somali-Kenyan ties that have hit a low recently. The two neighbours are currently at loggerheads over the ownership of a narrow triangle—about 100,000 square kilometres off the coast of Africa—in the Indian Ocean.
The main driver of the dispute, which is now being heard at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, is the potential hydrocarbon deposits in the contested area. The telecom war has the potential to hamper a peaceful resolution of the dispute and escalate the security situation in the region.
There are no winners
A famous Somali proverb goes “to agree to have dialogue is the beginning of a peaceful resolution.” To end the unnecessary telecom war, it is vital that Kenyan forces and Hormuud iron out their differences. Hormuud and other Somali-owned telecom firms should be left to provide network and telecom services to Jubaland while Safaricom covers the Kenyan side of the border.
The KDF should focus on its primary mandate: reduce the threat posed by Al Shabaab and help the stabilisation, reconciliation and peacebuilding in Somalia. If Nairobi is actually committed to fending off Al Shabaab, especially in the porous border areas, then Kenyan officials should not make life more difficult for already vulnerable communities in Somalia. Instead, Nairobi should focus on winning hearts and minds.
Somalia and Kenya should tone down tensions in regards to the maritime dispute to prevent future wars and proxy conflicts. The two neighbours should de-escalate, resolve their issues peacefully and put the peripheral disputes to an end. The international community and Africa’s regional blocs (e.g. IGAD, African Union) should intervene to prevent a fallout of the situation and further regional insecurity
If Kenya continues its brinksmanship, then Hormuud Telecom, with the help of the Somali government, should hire international lawyers and sue Nairobi for damages.