Kenya’s ‘War on Terror’: the crux of the challenge

Westen K Shilaho

The Star, 18 April 2017

The spate of terror attacks in Kenya by Somali-based Al-Shabaab militants is of grave concern. The latest attack happened in February against a police camp in Mandera, a town along the border with Somalia. The Kenyan media reported that a police vehicle, guns, ammunition, and biometric voter registration (BVR) kits had been stolen during the attack. A section of the local media noted that a child had been shot dead as well. Surprisingly, the police later found the voting kits in a hotel in Nairobi’s Eastleigh district allegedly being used to register voters illegally in the run-up to the August 2017 general election. The Kenyan military entered Somalia in 2011 in pursuit of Al-Shabaab militants who had allegedly kidnapped foreign tourists and aid workers in Kenya. The soldiers later joined the 22, 000-strong African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) which also includes troops from Uganda, Ethiopia, and Burundi. Since then, Kenya has experienced retaliatory terror attacks.

The capital city of Nairobi, the coastal region, and the north-eastern parts of Kenya have borne the brunt of this terror. Other than the human cost estimated at almost 1,000 deaths, and destruction to property, the attacks have adversely affected the economy. Moreover, terrorism worsened Kenya’s ethnically frayed social fabric by dividing the country further along religious fault-lines. In some cases, Somali terrorists spared Muslims and killed those who could not recite verses from the Koran. However, in spite of the barbarity of this violence, the rule of law remains the only bulwark against it. Extreme measures such as summary executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture embolden and radicalise youth and have expanded the ranks of the terrorists. In the light of massacres in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall in 2013, the Garissa University College carnage in 2015, and the massacre of Kenyan soldiers in Somalia in 2016 and 2017, the Kenyan government ought to have changed its approach, using carrots as well as sticks.

A lawless Somalia is a threat to Kenya, the Horn of Africa, and international peace and security in general. Since Somalia’s collapse in 1991, Kenya had not experienced terror attacks except for the Al-Qaeda-inspired bombing of the United States (US) embassy in Nairobi in 1998, and a rocket attempt on a plane full of Israeli tourists taking off from the coastal city of Mombasa in 2003. The spate of terror attacks that Kenya experienced thereafter resulted from the incursion of Kenya’s military into Somalia in 2011. Al-Shabaab resents foreign forces in Somalia and regards them as occupying troops. Kenya deployed forces into Somalia without a strategy on how it would handle the backlash of a challenge that the United Nations had foreseen. The UN Security Council authorised the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union (AU) to establish a protection and training mission in Somalia but warned neighbouring countries not to deploy troops into Somalia. Inherent flaws in Kenya’s body politic such as corruption, economic and political exclusion, impunity, nepotism, and ethnic divisions pose a greater threat to its peace, security, cohesion and stability than terrorism.

Ethnic profiling, and stigmatisation of Kenyans of ethnic Somalis smacks of xenophobia. In 2014, security forces rounded up Somali refugees and Somali Kenyans from Nairobi’s Eastleigh district and detained them in Kasarani stadium for screening. Eastleigh, popularly referred to as “Little Mogadishu”, is a predominantly Somali-inhabited area of Nairobi. Kenya is home to 2.4 million citizens of Somali ancestry and hosts hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. Critics likened the detention of Somalis in the stadium to a “concentration camp”. Victims were subjected to degrading conditions, and were reportedly tortured. Allegations of police asking them for bribes and asking for sex from women in exchange for their release appeared in sections of the media, both local and international. Demonization of Islam, elimination of Muslim preachers, and extra-judicial executions are all counter-productive to the Kenyan government’s efforts to combat terrorism. If a hammer is the only tool the government has, then every problem is a nail. Such approaches harden positions, contribute to radicalisation of more youth, and drive them into extremism. Corruption in the country’s immigration department, and the police, also facilitate terrorism.

The Police Oversight Authority (IPOA) came into being in 2011 to ensure civilian oversight over the police and to inculcate a human rights culture into this sector. Kenya’s security apparatus is partisan, trigger-happy, politicised, and often acts at the behest of the government of the day. The police requires modern policing methods, particularly in intelligence-gathering, that respect the rule of law as opposed to a fixation with brute force, symbolised by artillery and armoured vehicles. Recruitment into the police must also be meritocratic to rid it of corruption, nepotism, and ethnic divisions.

Critics, especially opposition politicians, have called for the withdrawal of Kenya’s troops from Somalia on the grounds that this is a proxy war waged at the behest of Washington and its allies. Wars of occupation are often protracted, as illustrated by the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s. However, some of Kenya’s opposition politicians are also exploiting this issue for political capital by demanding that the troops be recalled. They were part of the grand coalition government when Mwai Kibaki, the then president, sent the troops to Somalia without parliamentary approval as stipulated in the constitution, but did not object. The government of Uhuru Kenyatta, however, insists that it will not withdraw troops from Somalia until extremists have been defeated.