Outgoing Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) General Samson Mwathethe was studying in the United Kingdom in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down. His immediate thought was that the Cold War was over.
“No, the war has just begun,” his professor rebutted.
Recalling the moments in the book The Kenya Navy: A 50-year Voyage, Gen Mwathethe said the professor’s words came to pass.
In the book, which was published in his early months as CDF, Gen Mwathethe promised to get the “bad guys” — in reference to Al-Shabaab terrorists.
This month, as Gen Mwathethe prepares to leave the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), the “bad guys” are far from being vanquished.
“It will be difficult to pin-point outstanding achievements which can be associated with him,” Mr Edward Wanyonyi, a graduate of war studies from King’s College, London, says about the General.
Gen Mwathethe was sworn in in May 2015 and under his watch, some of the worst attacks on KDF soldiers in Somalia occurred. Even though internal reviews were promised, to date the public is none the wiser on what exactly happened in two of the worst attacks.
At daybreak in January 2016, in the remote wilds of El Adde town, a truck laden with explosives forced its way into a camp occupied by soldiers of Kenya’s 5th and 9th battalions followed by tens of Al-Shabaab gunmen.
In the end, it was estimated that between 120 and 200 Kenyan soldiers were killed. The real figure has never been made public, including findings of the El- Adde Board of Inquiry report by the military.
“The General does not want the report to come out because it will expose the incompetence of his commanders,” said Major (Rtd) John Ondieki.
A year later, in January 2017, at least 60 troops were killed in yet another attack on KDF in the Somalia town of Kolbiyow in an Al-Shabaab attack. Once again, the terrorists’ tactics were similar — a vehicle full of explosives followed by fighters.
There has also been no public information provided.
Unlike his predecessor, Gen (Rtd) Julius Karangi, who recorded successes and made announcements after capturing several towns in Somalia, including the Al-Shabaab stronghold of Kismayu in September 2012, Gen Mwathethe has been reclusive throughout his tenure — perhaps because the Kenyan troops have joined the Africa Union mission in Somalia (Amisom). It could also that there have been no major victories to announce.
After the capture of the port city of Kismayu, the initial plan was that the KDF was to get involved in hunting down Al-Shabaab militants in their other strongholds of Baware and Jilib, located in middle Juba. This never happened.
Last month, the KDF troops moved out of their forward operating bases in the Gedo region of Somalia, furthering the cold relationship between Kenya and other countries contributing troops to Amisom.
The withdrawal of the troops left the KDF only controlling lower Juba with Middle Juba and the Gedo regions falling into the hands of Al-Shabaab militants.
Even though some military sources painted this as a tactical retreat, a senior African Union officials confided in the Sunday Nation that they were appalled by the actions of the Kenyans.
A meeting held late last month in Nairobi to solve those issues failed to calm the waters. The participants included commanders from all the Amisom contributing countries, the African Union and the European Union.
A few days ago, Al-Shabaab militants kidnapped two Cuban doctors in Mandera. Despite KDF joining the search and rescue operations, there has not been much progress.
Gen Mwathethe has also failed to address the lingering questions that dogged the tenure of Gen Karangi regarding claims the KDF was engaging in the illicit sale of charcoal in Somalia and the border dispute between Nairobi and Mogadishu.
The General says Kenya needs to upgrade its strength at sea so as to guarantee peace and security in our waters. The matter has at times caused diplomatic rows and is before the International Court of Justice.
As a result, in November last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the Kenya Coast Guard Service (KCGS) that saw the offshore patrol vessel Doria commissioned as its first vessel.
Other than protecting Kenya’s maritime resources and security, the KCGS is also tasked with supporting the military in times of war. However, critics reckon that the coast guard has roles that overlap with those of the Navy considerably.
Despite the pitfalls, Mr Wanyonyi argues that there was considerable progress in modernising the military.
There has also been significant investment in equipping the Joint Helicopter Command.
“KDF has also made good progress as a partner in the multi-agency initiative. This has led to significant reduction and effective dealing with terror-related incidents,” Mr Wanyonyi says.
As he leaves office, Gen Mwathethe’s image is one of a media-shy officer. Indeed, it seems he only appeared on TV when he was escorting or receiving President Kenyatta from his foreign trips.
Gen Mwathethe joined the Navy in 1978 as a seaman and rose through the ranks to become its Deputy Commander in 2004 before succeeding Major General Pastor Awitta as the Navy Commander in 2006.
Notably, in his cadet training in the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst in the UK, he trained alongside King Abdullah II of Jordan and they became good friends. This was key to the improved military cooperation between Kenya and the Kingdom of Jordan.
Lady luck smiled on him in 2011 when he was promoted to Lieutenant General and subsequently appointed as the Vice-Chief of the Defence Forces, setting his way to becoming the Chief of Defence Forces.
Initially, he never wanted to join the Navy, influenced by his mother’s fear of the sea, which had claimed a number of his friends in their adventures in the ocean as he grew up in Malindi and Mtwapa.
When he was recruited to join the Army, then Major Daniel Opande (the retired decorated peacekeeper) asked him if he would have liked to join the Navy. His reply was a resounding “no.”
It’s General (Rtd) Opande who convinced him to join the Navy.
“So, I knew telling her that I had now joined the Navy was going to cause her a lot of stress. That is why I wanted to join the Army. I also gave a thought to joining the Air Force. But General Opande convinced me that it would be a good idea for me to join the Navy. And I was lucky to be one of those eventually chosen as a cadet,” he recalls in the book.