Kenya, US should change their Somalia policy
Last week’s protests by a handful of Muslim youth in Nairobi, in which four people were killed, revealed profound radicalisation among Nairobi’s Muslims and inter-faith resentment that Kenya should redress to avoid Nigeria-style violence in the future. In this effort it should work closely with the United States, which in addition to being an important player in Somalia is involved in interconnected regional initiatives.
The protests shook the basis of tolerance in this otherwise benign country as nothing has ever done. On the one end, some civilians cheered the police, which is generally reviled for its many crimes against the people. Some vigilantes even joined the battle on their side. On the other end, an armed protester – believed to have smuggled a gun into the protest – shot at a policeman. Authorities have denied reports of the officer’s death, but have confirmed the sacking of a Muslim officer who defied orders to charge into the protesters.
The government, knowing that these riots will reopen interfaith differences at a time when Kenyans – in the middle of a constitution rewrite – least need them, has announced a comprehensive and urgent investigation. To its credit it got Muslim friends to condemn the killings and the demo’s organisers, whose leader it has since arrested. That the protesters were fighting over a foreigner, Sheik Abdullah Al-Faisal, who is being held on terrorism charges, fuelled much of the public rage.
One symptom of Kenya’s chronic failure in the fight against extremism is her refusal to engage the groups that actually speak for Muslims. Days before the protest Muslim groups had voiced genuine concerns over Al-Faisal’s illegal confinement and hysterical statements by Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang that the man is a terror suspect. The government ignored them, and unleashed the police when they protested.
Another is delusion that Kenya can have two sets of laws, for Muslims and for others. Yet repression does Kenya no good. By killing Muslims it plays into the hands of extremists who draw passionate responses to such action. Instead of meting force on innocents, Kenya would better deploy her many strategic strengths in the fight against extremism. It would have first to fix problems in the police, whose penchant for bribes is exposing the country to genuine terrorism risks by allowing dubious people across the borders.
However, thanks to cooperation with America, Kenya has good counterterrorism systems. It can prevent ugly scenes like Al-Faisal’s entry by enforcing strict border patrol, airline security, and immigration screening or simply by sharing intelligence with other agencies, which has proved successful in numerous instances.
Authorities who have publicised Faisal’s terrorist orientation are saying little on how he entered Kenya overland from Tanzania unnoticed at the Lunga Lunga border point. The excuse that the database that has the watch list was being replaced at the time cannot wash. If that were true, the officers would have examined the records of the few hundred travellers they had allowed in immediately the system was reinstalled. It took the Americans to alert Kenya of Al-Faisal’s presence, while the guy was already in a mosque preaching!
But still Kenya did not use the information prudently. Rather than undertake the deportation – Faisal broke no law and can’t be charged – ministers ran amok, publicising the man’s terror credentials, his extremist orientation and a botched deportation that flouted international norms. The Tanzanians rejected the cleric at Lunga Lunga border point on grounds that Kenya did not notify them in time. The Nigerians, with their own problems with the Abdulmutallab frenzy, could not possibly take in another terrorist.
So Kenya has had to host Faisal for 10 days, during which time it accuses Britain and the US, who are supposedly better placed to handle his case, of forsaking the country at its hour of need. Matter of fact is that Kenya exaggerated the risk Al-Faisal posed here, generating a furore that it has failed to manage.
None of this is to deny that Faisal is a dangerous man. Airlines don’t refuse to fly one for nothing. Britain says his preaching inspired one of the 7/7 London bombers, and even Abdulmutallab. He could have contacts with Al Qaeda in Somalia, which the US says is rapidly expanding into an ambitious regional network.
Changes in the Kenyan economy are recasting the role of the Coastal regions, which the International Organisation of Migration has found to fertile grounds for extremist elements. While Kenya attracts badly-needed foreign investment, it must establish the backgrounds of foreigners, some of who are disguised criminals. Al-Faisal himself was legally allowed to enter Kenya. Ongoing swoops on Somali neighbourhoods smack of racial profiling. It is difficult to understand why a government that routinely welcomes dubious businessmen and tourists should harass refugees fleeing the gravest humanitarian crisis imposed upon them by a needless war.
Unlike in repressive Ethiopia, in Kenya such tactics strengthen the hand of extremists. With each new protest against genuine grievances, and each draconian response by the police, swoops and the like, it will be hard to argue that Kenya is not repressing Muslims. Such is the propaganda that Al Shabaab needs. Live television transmission of the protest incited a bigger albeit peaceful demo in Mombasa. Scenes of police firing teargas into Nairobi’s main mosque are outright insensitive, but also fuel the bats of radicalisation that helps extremists.
To check Al Shabaab, Kenya should persuade America to calibrate its policy in a way that makes the prospect of unity of Somalis realistic. The Somali crisis is a political problem, with Al Shabaab one of the key players. To be fair, Kenya cannot change America’s policy or interests, but no country is better placed than Kenya, which is most at most risk from the radicalisation of Somali youth, to bring the US to finding a solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of all Somalis.
As a senator and presidential candidate, President Obama had fabulous ideas about Somalia which need testing in light of the negative results of Bush-era military-led policy, which was escalated under him last year. Al Shabaab is growing primarily because the spectre of American intervention arouses anger and damages further the pitiable reputation of TFG.
Continuation of the failed military policy may arise in part due to limited choices by the new president and reliance on people who had been fighting this fight before him. It might also be that, without a strategic understanding of the evolving crisis, the US is uncertain and paralysed about how to proceed. Why else would it rehabilitate Sheik Sharif, a former Islamic Courts leader it deposed in 2006?
America’s strong national interest in Somalia would be better met by investing in a realistic roadmap for peace, something President Obama must crucially be in need of, and which Kenya should take a key role in formulating. What the international community needs is a Somalia policy that takes into account internal dynamics in the Horn of Africa as a whole.
But no one wants Kenya to roll back on democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. So the US should invest real interest in the Kenya Police reform. Reforming the police is an absolute pre-requisite to returning to the rule of law, for inability of the state to provide essential protections is the main cause of vigilantism, which reached a dangerous level on Friday. Corruption within the force and its ephemeral organization impede its capacity to fight organised crimes. America is better placed to help Kenya redress this.
The writer, a State Department leadership alumnus, is a journalist in Nairobi, Kenya.
Development / Accra / Ghana / Africa / Modernghana.com
Source: John Onyando