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Is Kenya’s security policy the real enemy within?

Members of the militant Al-shabab in southern Somalia Hassan Mahamud Ahmed/IRIN

Instead of threatening to eject 350,000 Somali refugees or building a wall along an entire border, experts and observers are urging Kenya to tackle the real enemies within: poor governance and stalled police reforms.

Since Kenya began a military intervention in Somalia to target insurgent group al-Shabab in October 2011, there has been a spate of terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil.

Most recently, 147 people were killed during a 15-hour siege at Garissa University in northeastern Kenya. The reaction of the security services to the 2 April attack deepened the perception that they are corrupt and inept. 

An official inquiry is ongoing, but it is alleged that the deployment of the elite unit that eventually killed the Garissa attackers in minutes was delayed because a police chief was using the largest plane to bring his family back from holiday. The government described the response time as "reasonable."

“People are really scared,” Lone Felix, a prominent student leader and former president of Kenyatta University, told IRIN. “There’s everything wrong with the policing in Kenya.”

Entrenched corruption

In October 2014, Kenya’s high court halted the recruitment of 10,000 extra police officers after finding the hiring process riddled with irregularities.

“They are inefficient, corrupt and incompetent”

In the aftermath of the Garissa attack, President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the 10,000 recruits to report to work, only to then see his plans quashed by the courts.

“Hiring is very corrupt: you get a job if you pay, you don’t get a job if you don’t,” Professor David Anderson, an expert on security and violence in East Africa from the University of Warwick, told IRIN.

“Kenyan security forces are not trained or equipped to deal with the threat that they now face,” Anderson said. “They are inefficient, corrupt and incompetent.”

Similar allegations continue to dog Kenyan politics. Days before the Garissa attack, the government presented a list of 175 senior public officials accused of corruption to Senate.

Police reform efforts stalling

Comprehensive police reform laws were passed in 2011 in response to widespread post-election violence a few years earlier. However, implementation has been slow and rights groups argue little has changed.

“Although the government is trying to instigate a massive reorganisation of the police, they (the police) have resisted,” said Anderson. “The government has lost their trust in their (own) police.”

Morale was already low following the 2013 Westgate shopping centre attack in Nairobi, which saw an elite police commander killed by friendly fire in the early hours of a siege by al-Shabab militants that eventually left 67 dead.

"They live in seclusion"

Reports suggested a lack of organisation between different units. However, despite Kenyatta’s pledge to conduct one, there has still been no official public inquiry into what happened.

“A public inquiry into the Westgate and Garissa attacks would reveal what the authorities knew prior to the attacks, what measures they took to prevent the assault, and how they responded,” Professor Samuel Makinda, a security expert from Murdoch University in Australia, wrote in a commentary.

Security forces isolated from communities

A further problem with Kenya’s counter-terror strategy is that the security forces are often isolated from local communities.

“Police are supposed to be integrated into the society. In Kenya, it is the opposite. They have their own housing schemes and they live in seclusion,” said Felix.

This is most pronounced in northeast Kenya and along the coast, which have large ethnic Somali and Muslim populations.

“A glaring weakness in Kenya’s defence against Islamist terror is the persistent gap between Kenyan’s security forces and the civilian populations that rely on their protection,” William Bellamy, former US ambassador to Kenya, wrote as a senior advisor in the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“In these predominately Muslim areas, distrust of the government in Nairobi runs deep. Security crackdowns following the Westgate Mall massacre have led many Muslim communities to conclude that they are being targeted for collective punishment.”

In April 2014, police rounded up thousands of ethnic Somalis in Nairobi and held them at the national stadium as part of a security operation.

Months later, the Kenyan government denied accusations it was behind a string of extra-judicial killings of Muslim clerics tied to al-Shabab.

"In Somalia, al-Shabab is on the back foot. In Kenya, the group is gaining prominence"

Since the Garissa attack, the government has threatened to shut down Dadaab refugee camp, where more than 350,000 mostly Somali refugees live, and has begun building a 700-kilometre wall along the Kenya-Somalia border.

Such actions, as well as precipitating widespread fear among Muslim and Somali communities, appear to be doing little to stop the rise of Islamic extremism in Kenya.

“In Somalia, al-Shabab is on the back foot. In Kenya, the group is gaining prominence,” Bronwyn Bruton, Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Centre, wrote.

Bellamy urged the Kenyan government to change tack.

“By reaching out to civil society organisations, especially in Muslim majority regions, Kenya’s security forces can learn much about how communities are vulnerable to youth radicalisation and terrorist recruitment."

Al-Shabab takes advantage

Al-Shabab has been capitalising on these fissures and altering its strategy to focus on disenfranchised groups.

“They publish a lot. They will publish videos in Swahili. They comment upon Kenyan politics,” Stig Jarle Hansen, associate professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and an expert on al-Shabab, told KCRW radio. “It’s a major recruitment effort from the Shabab inside Kenya.”

“The period when Shabab was consisting only of Somalis, well that period has ended. Now you have to look into other ethnic groups as well,” he added. 

"Kenya's bad governance... has been a boon for al-Shabab"

Indeed, one of the perpetrators of the Garissa attack was a Kenyan law student, and the son of a government official. Other attackers were also thought to be Kenyan.

“Al-Shabab‘s continued attacks and successes in Kenya are due to Kenya‘s bad governance and divisions within the Somali community, especially between the Ogadeni and Marehan clans,” said Makinda.

“Kenya‘s bad governance, which could be explained in terms of an increase in political violence, endemic corruption and (the) poor relationship between the citizenry and security agencies, has been a boon for al-Shabab,” he added.

Roland Marchal, senior research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), said it was important to view the current terror threat as grounded more in Kenya itself rather than being a spillover from the crisis in Somalia.

“This would lead us to question some of the narratives on how state-building took place in Kenya and how marginalised populations (such as coastal people) could be reintegrated as citizens,” he told IRIN.

Anderson warned that democracy and transparency were likely to be major victims in the short-term as the Kenyan state exerts greater control.

“That may be the price Kenyans have to pay for increased security,” he said.


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