Neglecting the needs of Somali communities in the northeast of Kenya leaves room for extremist groups such as al-Shabaab to radicalize them, said Moses Onyango, Director of the Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the United States International University—Africa.
“If you look at the issue of radicalization, there are many factors that are involved, but basically the main factor that you find in the Kenyan situation is the issue of marginalization,” said Mr. Onyango, also a Fellow of the African Leadership Centre, Kings College London.
“We are looking at northeastern Kenya, which is mainly inhabited by the Kenyan-Somalis and has been neglected for many years in terms of development … the response has been that most of these extremist groups have looked at that particular gap and identified it, and have infiltrated the Kenyan communities in terms of offering development where the state has failed.”
Speaking with International Peace Institute Policy Analyst Margaret Williams, he said the Kenyan government had responded in three main ways to the recent spate of terrorist attacks in the country.
At the municipal level, the government has profiled the Kenyan Somalis in Nairobi, and arrested them, and some of them have been deported back to Somalia. At the international level, the government has initiated construction of a wall between the border of Kenya and Somalia. And most recently, the government has also given a softer approach of offering amnesty to some of the Kenyans,” Mr. Onyango said.
He said the effects of these tactics had often been to increase marginalization, and offered support for alternative strategies such as increasing youth employment and entrepreneurship opportunities.
Since late 2011 Kenya has suffered from a dramatic increase in terrorist attacks nationwide. What has been the government response on the municipal and national level, and what has been the result?
The government has actually responded in three main ways. At the municipal level, the government has profiled the Kenyan Somalis in Nairobi, and arrested them, and some of them have been deported back to Somalia. At the international level the government has initiated a construction of a wall between the border of Kenya and Somalia. And most recently the government has also given a softer approach of offering amnesty to some of the Kenyans.
Now, the results to this have actually been very drastic. The profiling of Somalis has given a very negative response on the part of the Somali-Kenyans; they feel that they are marginalized. On the part of the construction of the wall, many Kenyans feel that it’s not appropriate because it’s quite expensive, and most of the homegrown terrorists are actually within the boundaries of Kenya.
How has security sector reform in Kenya addressed issues of ethnicity and tribalism?
In order to understand this particular question, we first of all need to understand the background. The security sector reform came about after the post-election violence in 2007-2008—a mediation process that was led by [former United Nations secretary-general] Kofi Annan One of the critical issues that was identified was the issue of tribalism and ethnicity, and subsequent to that a truth and justice reconciliation commission was formed to try to look into that particular issue, and the commission’s report was submitted but unfortunately that particular report has not been acted upon.
What the government has done is to go ahead and implement some part of those particular recommendations, and they have looked at the area of justice reforms and the police reform. Unfortunately, most of these particular vetting processes have been actually artificial because most of the police officers, for example, who have been vetted have actually gotten their jobs back. So the issues of tribalism and ethnicity is still entrenched in the security sector in Kenya.
The countering violent extremism agenda emphasizes addressing root causes and marginalization. Is this a major factor in a recruitment and radicalization by extremist groups such as al-Shabaab?
If you look at the issue of radicalization there are many factors that are involved, but basically the main factor that you find in the Kenyan situation is the issue of marginalization, and by marginalization we are looking at historical factors, we are looking at marginalization of northeastern Kenya, which is mainly inhabited by the Kenyan-Somalis and has been neglected for many years in terms of development. When we look at marginalization we are looking at particular ethnic groups that have not been involved in issues of development. So it’s quite a major factor, and then the response has been that most of these extremist groups have looked at that particular gap and identified it, and have infiltrated the Kenyan communities in terms of offering development where the state has failed.
And does it affect young men and women differently?
Yes, of course it does. When you look at the youth population in Kenya, the women, the girl child, is basically oppressed in a different way. We are looking at female genital mutilation affecting the girls, we are looking at girls being forced into marriage when they’re still young, and failing to access education. These are issues that do not actually affect the male child, therefore the approach should be different because the girl child, the issues that affect the girl child are completely different from those of the male child, though the male child is also immediately affected in terms of education in Kenya.
In April 2015, the Kenyan government offered a general amnesty to all young members of al-Shabaab who are willing to renounce it. How successful has this and other deradicalization and reintegration efforts in Kenya been?
Actually if you look at the amnesty that was a offered by the Kenyan government it was a knee-jerk response to what happened in the terror attacks in Garissa that affected the students, and what happened is that this idea of amnesty has always been an approach of many intergovernmental organizations like USAid, so when the government took it up, they responded without proper structure and it elicited lots of response from different sectors of communities. For example, the Christians thought that the amnesty was actually not necessary because the Muslim community is deeply involved in terms of radicalization, and on the part of the Muslim community, they feel that the government is not sincere in terms of amnesty, and actually called upon the youth not to respond to the amnesty. They asked the youth to actually report to the Muslim community so that they, the Muslim community, can actually discuss a better strategy of reintegration. They told the youth that if they do report to government, government will actually torture them, so you can see the perception of the Muslim community of the intentions of the government, they’re quite negative.
Looking forward, Nairobi recently hosted the 6th Global Entrepreneurship Summit. What opportunities do you think entrepreneurship offers young people, particularly in the fight against extremism?
The unemployment problem of young people in Kenya is quite huge. You find that youth aged between 15 and 19, and between 20 and 24 cover about a percentage of 25 to 24, respectively in terms of unemployment, and this is actually double the 12.5% of unemployment generally in Kenya. Therefore, this is a very, very critical mass that needs to be addressed in terms of unemployment if success is going to be achieved in terms of countering violent extremism. So the opportunities that are to be offered in terms of employment with this particular entrepreneur summit is very critical and important in terms of creating jobs for the unemployed youth, and this might actually solve some of the historical injustices in Kenya.