Addressing Kenya-Somalia conflict and counter terrorism strategies

We argue that efforts should be made to devise policies that can bring peace to Somalia and Kenya.

Kenya has long been in al-Shabaab’s sights, even before it sent troops across the border into Somalia in 2011 in an attempt to root out the militants behind the abductions of Western tourists on the Kenyan coast. In 1998, an al Qaeda attack, which involved a number of Somalis, on the American embassy in Nairobi killed more than 200 people. The number of attacks soared after 2011.

Westgate attack aside, 147 students were killed in an attack on a university in the northern town in Garissa in 2015 while scores more had previously died when suspected al Shabaab militants struck at villages on the northern Kenyan coast. Despite mounting domestic opposition and al-Shabaab attacks on their bases, Kenyan forces remain in Somalia.

The recent  2019 attack on 14 Riverside came on the third anniversary of an al-Shabaab attack on a Kenyan military base in the Somali town of El Adde.  With all these attacks, it is time to reflect on a strategy that will find sustainable solutions to the chronic instability along the Kenya-Somalia border zone.

Currently characterised by state failure, callousness of absent politicians, corruption, worrying refugee flows, humanitarian crises, human rights violations, racial profiling, radicalisation of Kenyan youth, and inability of the Kenyan government to guarantee security to its citizens, the unconventional ebb and flow of armed conflict dynamics, implies future attacks will no doubt follow.

Given that the Kenya government has vowed to pursue its military operations in Somalia, despite continuing retaliatory terror attacks, it is worth questioning and unmasking the political objectives and incentives by both sides. Undeniably, more traction is needed in trying to understand whether this conflict is about resources, will Kenya’s intervention bring peace and good governance to the Somali people or should they devise their own hybrid solutions, what is al-Shabaab’s strategic goal as well as how does Kenya plan to counter al-Shabaab’s strategy constructively and inclusively?

Firstly, the level of poverty, unemployment and under-development on the Kenya-Somalia border is high. There is rapid population increase; environmental degradation of rangelands in the region contributes to increased communal competition and pastoral conflicts over water and rangeland, expansion of cross-border commerce from Somalia into Kenya is having a variable effect on the conflict, spillover from protracted state collapse in Somalia has been a major driver of conflict in the border areas, producing destabilising flows of refugees, gun smuggling, small-arms proliferation, banditry, warfare and clan tensions. It would not be too much of a stretch to argue that Somalia’s state collapse is not the sole source of insecurity in Kenya, political and economic trends in the contemporary Kenya-Somalia border also seem to be a factor.

Secondly, despite a history of extremism and unconventional political developments in the region, relatively little empirical research has been done to determine why individuals join al-Shabaab. Consequently, expanding the role of local institutions, mediated state arrangements such as traditional leaders, religious leaders including the participation of Islamic leadership, peace committees, can help both states fulfill core functions of governance as well as dispensation of justice where both Kenya and Somalia governments cannot extend their authority at the border zone. Arguably, these traditional institutions signify strong local ownership, commitment and knowledge of local conflicts and are more trusted by the communities.

So what now? Recent efforts and interventions to address underlying drivers of conflict have only managed and mediated conflicts in the region to a minimal extent. But a more reasonable and comprehensive peace building strategy demands policies which will seek to address the most dangerous underlying drivers of the conflict. Introducing external aid and other interventions will meaningfully help reshape the sources of conflict into factors that promote peace and security in the region. These will include strengthening politics, good governance of institutions and liberal democracy in the region. Business interests, the discovery of oil and gas in the off-shore border, are especially acquiescent on the need for shaping a sustainable strategy.

Given that both countries benefit from each other economically, as exemplified in Eastleigh – a thriving business suburb of Nairobi inhabited by Somali immigrants who invest heavily in the enclave – that contributes over US$1.5 billion in the neighborhood alone accounting for around 25% of the Nairobi City Council’s tax revenues as of September 2012, the significance of finding a suitable strategy to address the conflict is in the interests of not only Kenya and Somalia, but also Uganda, Ethiopia. To avoid an al- Shabaab resurgence, these countries, including the international community equally affected by terrorism and piracy, need to understand that there is currently a succinct opportunity to heighten security co-operation. Deepening security co-operation in eliminating al-Shabaab will undoubtedly deliver an enormous peace dividend that benefits not only Kenya and Somalia, but also the entire Horn of Africa.

Borrowing from a United Nations Monitoring Report on Somalia and Eritrea, al-Shabaab generates half of its revenues at the Kismayo port. The UN estimates, for example, that the group makes between US$35 and US$50 million a year mostly through taxation, not forgetting the proceeds from piracy. Finding solutions to the conflict in the region entails providing alternative incentives for al-Shabaab to divert their sources of income. Attention has to be put on the reconstruction of basic infrastructure to prepare Somalia to enter a constitutional phase. This will mean building inclusive institutions of democratic governance, rule of law, decentralisation of power, protection of human rights and safeguarding the integrity of the country. The Somali people have to be determined to support this new dawn and future without external interference.



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