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Kenya’s counterproductive anti-terror measures

In reaction to the Garissa massacre, Kenya is taking steps that threaten to do more harm than good. The devastating terror attack on April 2, in which 148 civilians were murdered by Al-Shabaab gunmen at Garissa University, is the deadliest in Kenya in almost two decades, and has left the Kenyan public in a state of shock. The extent of the trauma was apparent on Sunday, April 12, when an electrical transformer exploded by accident at the University of Nairobi. The explosion triggered a panicked stampede as students thought it was another terror attack, and more than 140 students were injured; one died jumping from an upper story. Many of the students have suspended their studies.

The Kenyan government has reacted to the attack in several ways, but some of these measures will tend to worsen the terror problem in the long term. The government may be rushing to action in part to cover up an embarrassing illustration of the way in which governance issues impact security: Kenyans are angry over the fact that Recce Company, the police’s elite intervention unit, only arrived in Garissa eleven hours after the terrorists had entered the university.

Recce Company ended the siege and killed four of the terrorists within 30 minutes of breaking into the hostel, but had had to wait seven hours for their transport plane from Nairobi. The plane was making a run to Mombasa and returned with the daughter-in-law of Kenya Police Airwing boss Rogers Mbithi on board. Mr Mbithi says the flight was a routine training operation, but it looks suspiciously like a misuse of government property that had deadly consequences by delaying police intervention.

The government’s biggest proposal is to close the Dadaab refugee camp, in Garissa district. The camp (technically three different camps) was established in 1991 when Mohammed Siad Barre fell in Somalia, and has since grown to become the biggest refugee camp in the world, containing about 600,000 refugees from conflict in Somalia, according to Kenya’s government. Around 100,000 have voluntarily repatriated in the past year and a half.

On Saturday, April 11, Deputy President William Ruto announced that his government had asked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which runs the camp, to relocate the remaining refugees in the camp within three months, or else “we shall relocate them ourselves.” Mr Ruto also said that Kenya had started to build a wall along its Somali border, which runs for 700 km. These are two huge and impractical proposals, and the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of refugees will necessarily turn into a public relations nightmare for the government, not least because it would breach the international treaty that established the UNHCR.

Less controversial, but potentially more harmful is the government’s action against money transfer networks. On April 7, the government closed down 13 informal money remittance firms called hawalas to cut off funding to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The effect on actual financing of terrorism will however be slight, as Al-Shabaab has ample funds on both sides of the border, not relying to a huge extent on remittances, and will certainly find other ways to transfer money if it needs to.

The impact will be felt most keenly by ordinary Somali families who live off remittances from relatives in Kenya, driving resentment against Kenya among the Somali population. That resentment is already at a high level owing to abuses committed by Kenyan troops active in Somalia, and, more recently, to bombing raids of questionable precision.

When it shut down the hawalas, the State froze the accounts of another 86 people and entities it suspected of sending funds to the Islamist group. Two of those accounts, however, were those of Muslims for Human Rights and Haki Africa, two outfits that have done important work in highlighting how the government’s previous anti-terror operations, especially in Coast Province, entailed human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings. In terms of anti-terror legislation in place, these organisations now have to prove their innocence, a legal situation that sits uneasily with some international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

At the weekend, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, two of the world’s most prominent NGOs, said that the action raised “concerns” that the NGOs were being “targeted for their important work documenting human rights violations committed by the security forces.” The European Union (EU) has made comparable noises warning Nairobi not to use terror as a pretext to constrain civil and political rights, as routinely happens in Wars on Terror from the US to Egypt.

All the actions taken so far – making it difficult for Somalis to remit funds home, threatening refugees with expulsion, bombing targets in Somalia, and hampering the work of NGOs – will tend to help Al-Shabaab rather than harm it. The more Somalis (and other Kenyan Muslims) are penalised by the State, the more sympathisers will be available for the group to recruit. These moves further add to structural political risk by limiting civil rights – restrictions on press freedom may come next.

There have not yet been major police operations in Kenya, but it is likely that such actions are being planned. If they are accompanied by forced removals and a few difficult-to-explain violent deaths, then that would confirm our view that security risk is trending negative. It must be acknowledged that the government is in an extremely difficult position and facing a dangerous enemy, but measures to improve reactivity in the security forces, steps to contain corruption especially where it endangers national security, and measures to turn the Somali community into an ally against Al-Shabaab, would be more productive than these shots fired in anger.

 Francois Conradie (Political Analyst)

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