Mass graves controversy highlight weakness of anti-terror strategy

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As part of our Twelve Days of Analysis, our Co-editor Nic Cheeseman and Ken Opalo explore the case of Isnina Musa Sheikh in Kenya, highlighting the urgent need for investigation and justice. Ken Opalo is an Assistant Professor of African Development at Georgetown University.

The story that the body of Isnina Musa Sheikh, a 29-year-old mother of six, had been found in a mass grave in Mandera has gone from tragedy to farce. Initial reports that as many as 20 bodies had been identified in a shallow grave now appear to be false. Further investigations in a number of sites have not found any more victims, and Amnesty International has now confirmed that it has visited the area and that the only body that has been found is that of Ms Sheikh. In the wake of this new evidence, Mandera Senator Billow Kerrow apologised for making comments relating to mass graves at a Nairobi press conference, saying that he regretted the anxiety that his previous statements had caused. However, this did not prevent him from being arrested, along with five other local politicians who have been detained for comments they made linking the supposed discovery to the activities of the security forces.

The controversy surrounding the initial statements of Kerrow and his colleagues is unfortunate, because it threatens to overshadow the most important part of the Mandera affair. In the war of words, the focus on Isnina Musa Sheikh, and why she lost her life, has been lost. This is lamentable because her death, and the public and political response to it, highlights some of the most important weaknesses of the government’s anti-terror strategy: The failure to occupy the moral high ground, provide security for vulnerable communities, and win the battle for hearts and minds.

The fact that significant parts of the media, political community and general public were prepared to accept that idea that mass graves had been identified and could be linked to the security forces — even though this was not the case — illustrates the lack of trust that threatens to undermine the country’s political stability and economic growth.

Hearts and Minds

It is widely accepted that defeating al-Shabaab will require both military and ideological victories. The military side of this equation is currently being pursued by the African Union through Amisom, supported by Kenyan troops. The government’s efforts to meet the latter challenge were initially boosted in the days following the Westgate crisis, when senior Jubilee Alliance leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with members of the Muslim community. However, any ground that was gained during that moment was subsequently wasted as a result of the heavy-handed treatment of Somalis, and the willingness of the government to subject whole communities to collective punishment. These practices have played into and exacerbated historical narratives concerning the marginalisation and repression of northeastern Kenya. The power of such narratives should not be underestimated, for they have strong and deep roots.

Following independence, successive governments have historically neglected the counties that make up the former North-Eastern Province, repeating the pattern of colonial rule. Even before the recent terrorism crisis, people from north-eastern felt so disconnected from the rest of the country that they would often talk about ‘going to Kenya’ when they travel to Nairobi. Persistent rumours that state security forces violate the law and commit human rights violations in the name of the War on Terror have amplified narratives of marginalisation and repression. According to Human Rights Watch, there is strong evidence that Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit has been responsible for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in the region.

The failure of the security forces to respect the law is particularly problematic in the current climate when the Kenyan government desperately need to win the hearts and minds of would-be al-Shabaab recruits. It’s against this backdrop that the discovery of Isnina Musa Sheikh remains raise such serious questions about Kenya’s counter-terrorism efforts on this side of the Somalia border. While it now appears that there were no mass graves, this does not mean that the country can afford to turn its attention away from this story; one death is still a tragedy, albeit a less headline-grabbing one.

A section of politicians and local activists have tied Ms Sheikh’s death to the pattern of extrajudicial killings and disappearances identified by Human Rights Watch. The government, through Cabinet secretary for Internal Security Joseph Nkaissery, insists Ms Sheikh was a cook for the Somali terror group al-Shabaab and may have been killed due to internal wrangles within the terror organisation. Either way, the fact that someone tortured, killed, and then secretly buried a Kenyan national on Kenyan soil is cause for alarm — as is the willingness of so many Kenyan journalists, politicians and citizens to believe that the security forces were somehow involved in her demise.

Indeed, the fact that the news of Ms Sheikh’s death and the claims of Kerrow did not strike many Kenyans as being particularly surprising is a damning indictment of the performance of the security forces in north-eastern Kenya, and what Kenyans have come to expect of the people tasked with keeping them safe.

The limits of the state

It is more important than ever for the government to win hearts and minds in the wake of the 2010 Constitution, because the current devolved system of government fundamentally altered the ability of the central government to project power in all corners of the country. For good reason, most Kenyans were opposed to the undemocratic tendencies of the old provincial administration. Officials in that system had acted as the eyes and ears of the executive since the colonial period, and clearly empowered the government of the day to control political developments in multiple arenas both inside and outside of Nairobi.

Of course, the reach and strength of the administration was not constant, and the weakness of the state in north-eastern Kenya placed limits on its effectiveness, but overall the bureaucratic structure and possession of de facto power at the district and sub-district levels enabled the government to have reasonably good information with which to pursue its security administration.

The 2010 Constitution introduced a political system that significantly reshaped the distribution of political and bureaucratic power. Although the provincial administration lives on in the form of regional and county commissioners, they do not enjoy the kind of unhindered authority that provincial commissioners used to wield.

There are two reasons for this. The first is it that the lines of reporting and decision-making have become less clear and less efficient. In response, President Kenyatta recently moved to recentralise aspects of the administration, giving commissioners new security powers, officially appointing them as chairs of all security meetings, and stipulating that they should report directly to the Interior Cabinet Secretary.

Time will tell whether this will resolve the issue of co-ordination, but it will do little to help with the second of the challenges faced by the administration, namely increased competition over political authority at the county level. Before devolution, the pre-eminence of provincial commissioners was clear – they enjoyed considerably more authority and resources than MPs, and presided over far larger areas.

County commissioners do not enjoy this advantage. Instead, they face powerful governors who enjoy both greater democratic legitimacy than them, and control greater economic resources. Partly as a result, governors have increasingly begun to contest the right of commissioners to direct security efforts in their counties, leading to confusion and, in the most extreme cases, public disagreement over the sources of instability and what should be done about it.

The weakening hold of the administration is a further reason that the government should be concerned with winning the battle for hearts and minds at multiple levels of the political system. Effective anti-terror operations will require the security services and county commissioners to find common cause with governors and other county-level politicians. But governors, ever wary of losing electoral ground against their rivals, are not likely to side with county commissioners unless the strategies that they adopt are seen to be legitimate by the public at large.

As governments in Europe have recently found out, fighting terrorism requires good police work, and good police work requires good information. In the absence of a particularly effective state – which Kenya does not possess, and is not likely to in the near future — good information requires tip offs and information from the public. This, in turn, requires trust and a sense of partnership.

It is precisely for this reason that the government should see communities that are susceptible to recruitment by al-Shabaab as allies and not enemies, and should be demonstrating this intent through its words and actions. Viewing these communities as partners will enable the government to collect the vital information it needs to carry out its counter-insurgency operations (COIN).

Better intelligence will enable the government to target its COIN operations on suspected terrorists, based on solid evidence. At the same time, improved intelligence gathering will obviate the need for mass arrests and detention, collective punishment, and extra-judicial killings — all actions that have this far been associated with Kenya’s counter-terrorism effort. But forming a public partnership is not possible in an atmosphere of fear and distrust, which is precisely what the alleged activities of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit are sustaining.

Instead of arresting politicians who raise issues relating to human rights abuses and disappearances, the security forces need to enter into a dialogue to discuss the concerns of community leaders and establish common ground. But for such talks to have credibility, the security forces will need to clean up their act and to behave with more transparently. An independent and thorough investigation of the death of Isnina Musa Sheikh, and others like here, would be a very good place to start.

This blog was initially published as a column in the Daily Nation on 16 December 2015. 

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