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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

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Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has become a battleground in the longstanding global Sunni-Shia conflict. By PAUL GOLDSMITH

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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya
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The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.

Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago

For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.

Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.

The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.

According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”

The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.

The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.

Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.

These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.

When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.

Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.

These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.

The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.

Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya

 The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.

One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.

Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.

The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”

It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.

The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.

Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.

During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.

Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.

The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.

In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.

When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.

The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.

East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.

The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.

The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.

Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.

Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.

When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.

For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.

The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.

“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.

“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”

That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.

Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.

The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.

Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.

Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back

At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.

The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.

The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.

We all know what came next.

The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

Dadaab: Playing Politics With the Lives of Somali Refugees in Kenya

Somali refugees in Kenya should not be held hostage by political disagreements between Mogadishu and Nairobi but must continue to enjoy Kenya’s protection as provided for under international law.

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Dadaab: Playing Politics With the Lives of Somali Refugees in Kenya
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For several years now, Kenya has been demanding that the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, close the expansive Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya, citing “national security threats”. Kenya has argued, without providing sufficient proof, that Dadaab, currently home to a population of 218,000 registered refugees who are mostly from Somalia, provides a “safe haven” and a recruitment ground for al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia that constantly carries out attacks inside Kenya. Threats to shut down have escalated each time the group has carried out attacks inside Kenya, such as following the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and the Garissa University attack in 2015.

However, unlike previous calls, the latest call to close Dadaab that came in March 2021, was not triggered by any major security lapse but, rather, was politically motivated. It came at a time of strained relations between Kenya and Somalia. Kakuma refugee camp in Turkana County in north-western Kenya, is mostly home to South Sudanese refugees but also hosts a significant number of Somali refugees. Kakuma has not been included in previous calls for closure but now finds itself targeted for political expediency—to show that the process of closing the camps is above board and targets all refugees in Kenya and not only those from Somalia.

That the call is politically motivated can be deduced from the agreement reached between the UNHCR and the Kenyan government last April where alternative arrangements are foreseen that will enable refugees from the East African Community (EAC) to stay. This means that the South Sudanese will be able to remain while the Somali must leave.

Security threat

Accusing refugees of being a security threat and Dadaab the operational base from which the al-Shabaab launches its attacks inside Kenya is not based on any evidence. Or if there is any concrete evidence, the Kenyan government has not provided it.

Some observers accuse Kenyan leaders of scapegoating refugees even though it is the Kenyan government that has failed to come up with an effective and workable national security system. The government has also over the years failed to win over and build trust with its Muslim communities. Its counterterrorism campaign has been abusive, indiscriminately targeting and persecuting the Muslim population. Al-Shabab has used the anti-Muslim sentiment to whip up support inside Kenya.

Moreover, if indeed Dadaab is the problem, it is Kenya as the host nation, and not the UNHCR, that oversees security in the three camps that make up the Dadaab complex. The camps fall fully under the jurisdiction and laws of Kenya and, therefore, if the camps are insecure, it is because the Kenyan security apparatus has failed in its mission to securitise them.

The terrorist threat that Kenya faces is not a refugee problem — it is homegrown. Attacks inside Kenya have been carried out by Kenyan nationals, who make up the largest foreign group among al-Shabaab fighters. The Mpeketoni attacks of 2014 in Lamu County and the Dusit D2 attack of 2019 are a testament to the involvement of Kenyan nationals. In the Mpeketoni massacre, al-Shabaab exploited local politics and grievances to deploy both Somali and Kenyan fighters, the latter being recruited primarily from coastal communities. The terrorist cell that conducted the assault on Dusit D2 comprised Kenyan nationals recruited from across Kenya.

Jubaland and the maritime border dispute 

This latest demand by the Kenyan government to close Dadaab by June 2022 is politically motivated. Strained relations between Kenya and Somalia over the years have significantly deteriorated in the past year.

Mogadishu cut diplomatic ties with Nairobi in December 2020, accusing Kenya of interfering in Somalia’s internal affairs. The contention is over Kenya’s unwavering support for the Federal Member State of Jubaland — one of Somalia’s five semi-autonomous states — and its leader Ahmed “Madobe” Mohamed Islam. The Jubaland leadership is at loggerheads with the centre in Mogadishu, in particular over the control of the Gedo region of Somalia.

Kenya has supported Jubaland in this dispute, allegedly hosting Jubaland militias inside its territory in Mandera County that which have been carrying out attacks on federal government of Somalia troop positions in the Gedo town of Beled Hawa on the Kenya-Somalia border. Dozens of people including many civilians have been killed in clashes between Jubaland-backed forces and the federal government troops.

Relations between the two countries have been worsened by the bitter maritime boundary dispute that has played out at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The latest call to close Dadaab is believed to have been largely triggered by the case at the Hague-based court, whose judgement was delivered on 12 October.  The court ruled largely in favour of Somalia, awarding it most of the disputed territory. In a statement, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said, “At the outset, Kenya wishes to indicate that it rejects in totality and does not recognize the findings in the decision.” The dispute stems from a disagreement over the trajectory to be taken in the delimitation of the two countries’ maritime border in the Indian Ocean. Somalia filed the case at the Hague in 2014.  However, Kenya has from the beginning preferred and actively pushed for the matter to be settled out of court, either through bilateral negotiations with Somalia or through third-party mediation such as the African Union.

Kenya views Somalia as an ungrateful neighbour given all the support it has received in the many years the country has been in turmoil. Kenya has hosted hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees for three decades, played a leading role in numerous efforts to bring peace in Somalia by hosting peace talks to reconcile Somalis, and the Kenyan military, as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, has sacrificed a lot and helped liberate towns and cities. Kenya feels all these efforts have not been appreciated by Somalia, which in the spirit of good neighbourliness should have given negotiation more time instead of going to court. In March, on the day of the hearing, when both sides were due to present their arguments, Kenya boycotted the court proceedings at the 11th hour. The court ruled that in determining the case, it would use prior submissions and written evidence provided by Kenya. Thus, the Kenyan government’s latest demand to close Dadaab is seen as retaliation against Somalia for insisting on pursuing the case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Nowhere safe to return to

Closing Dadaab by June 2022 as Kenya has insisted to the UNHCR, is not practical and will not allow the dignified return of refugees. Three decades after the total collapse of the state in Somalia, conditions have not changed much, war is still raging, the country is still in turmoil and many parts of Somalia are still unsafe. Much of the south of the country, where most of the refugees in Dadaab come from, remains chronically insecure and is largely under the control of al-Shabaab. Furthermore, the risk of some of the returning youth being recruited into al-Shabaab is real.

A programme of assisted voluntary repatriation has been underway in Dadaab since 2014, after the governments of Kenya and Somalia signed a tripartite agreement together with the UNHCR in 2013. By June 2021, around 85,000 refugees had returned to Somalia under the programme, mainly to major cities in southern Somalia such as Kismayo, Mogadishu and Baidoa. However, the programme has turned out to be complicated; human rights groups have termed it as far from voluntary, saying that return is fuelled by fear and misinformation. 

Many refugees living in Dadaab who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had agreed to return because they feared Kenya would force them out if they stayed. Most of those who were repatriated returned in 2016 at a time when pressure from the Kenyan government was at its highest, with uncertainty surrounding the future of Dadaab after Kenya disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA) and halted the registration of new refugees.

Many of the repatriated ended up in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Somalia, with access to fewer resources and a more dangerous security situation. Somalia has a large population of 2.9 million IDPs  scattered across hundreds of camps in major towns and cities who have been displaced by conflict, violence and natural disasters. The IDPs are not well catered for. They live in precarious conditions, crowded in slums in temporary or sub-standard housing with very limited or no access to basic services such as education, basic healthcare, clean water and sanitation. Thousands of those who were assisted to return through the voluntary repatriation programme have since returned to Dadaab after they found conditions in Somalia unbearable. They have ended up undocumented in Dadaab after losing their refugee status in Kenya.  

Many refugees living in Dadaab who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they had agreed to return because they feared Kenya would force them out if they stayed.

Camps cannot be a permanent settlement for refugees. Dadaab was opened 30 years ago as a temporary solution for those fleeing the war in Somalia. Unfortunately, the situation in Somalia is not changing. It is time the Kenyan government, in partnership with members of the international community, finds a sustainable, long-term solution for Somali refugees in Kenya, including considering pathways towards integrating the refugees into Kenyan society.  Dadaab could then be shut down and the refugees would be able to lead dignified lives, to work and to enjoy freedom of movement unlike today where their lives are in limbo, living in prison-like conditions inside the camps.

The proposal to allow refugees from the East African Community to remain after the closure of the camps — which will mainly affect the 130,000 South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma —  is a good gesture and a major opportunity for refugees to become self-reliant and contribute to the local economy.

Announcing the scheme, Kenya said that refugees from the EAC who are willing to stay on would be issued with work permits for free. Unfortunately, this option was not made available to refugees from Somalia even though close to 60 per cent of the residents of Dadaab are under the age of 18, have lived in Kenya their entire lives and have little connection with a country their parents escaped from three decades ago.

Many in Dadaab are also third generation refugees, the grandchildren of the first wave of refugees. Many have also integrated fully into Kenyan society, intermarried, learnt to speak fluent Swahili and identify more with Kenya than with their country of origin.

The numbers that need to be integrated are not huge. There are around 269,000 Somali refugees in Dadaab and Kakuma. When you subtract the estimated 40,000 Kenyan nationals included in refugee data, the figure comes down to around 230,000 people. This is not a large population that would alter Kenya’s demography in any signific ant way, if indeed this isis the fear in some quarters. If politics were to be left out of the question, integration would be a viable option.

Many in Dadaab are also third generation refugees, the grandchildren of the first wave of refugees.

For decades, Kenya has shown immense generosity by hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, and it is important that the country continues to show this solidarity. Whatever the circumstances and the diplomatic difficulties with its neighbour Somalia, Kenya should respect its legal obligations under international law to provide protection to those seeking sanctuary inside its borders. Refugees should only return to their country when the conditions are conducive, and Somalia is ready to receive them. To forcibly truck people to the border, as Kenya has threatened in the past, is not a solution. If the process of returning refugees to Somalia is not well thought out, a hasty decision will have devastating consequences for their security and well-being.

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The Assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the Haitian Imbroglio

As CARICOM countries call for more profound changes that would empower the Haitian population, Western powers offer plans for “consensual and inclusive” government that will continue to exclude the majority of the citizens of Haiti from participating in the running of their country.

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On Wednesday 7 July 2021, the President of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in his home. His wife was injured in the attack. That the president’s assassins were able to access his home posing as agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency of the United States (DEA) brought to the fore the intricate relationship between drugs, money laundering and mercenary activities in Haiti. Two days later, the government of Haiti reported that the attack had been carried out by a team of assailants, 26 of whom were Colombian. This information that ex-soldiers from Colombia were involved brought to the spotlight the ways in which Haiti society has been enmeshed in the world of the international mercenary market and instability since the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Lavalas movement in 2004.

When the French Newspaper Le Monde recently stated that Haiti was one of the four drug hubs of the Caribbean region, the paper neglected to add the reality that as a drug hub, Haiti had become an important base for US imperial activities, including imperial money laundering, intelligence, and criminal networks. No institution in Haiti can escape this web and Haitian society is currently reeling from this ecosystem of exploitation, repression, and manipulation. Under President Donald Trump, the US heightened its opposition to the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. The mercenary market in Florida became interwoven with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the financial institutions that profited from crime syndicates that thrive on anti-communist and anti-Cuba ideas.

But even as Haitian society is reeling from intensified destabilization, the so-called Core Group (comprising of the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union, the United States, France, Spain, Canada, Germany, and Brazil) offers plans for “consensual and inclusive” government that will continue to exclude the majority of the citizens of Haiti from participating in the running of their country. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, CARICOM countries are calling for more profound changes that would empower the population while mobilizing international resources to neutralize the social power of the money launderers and oligarchs in Haitian society.

Haiti since the Duvaliers

For the past thirty-five years, the people of Haiti have yearned for a new mode of politics to transcend the dictatorship of the Duvaliers (Papa Doc and Baby Doc). The Haitian independence struggles at the start of the 19th century had registered one of the most fundamental blows to the institutions of chattel slavery and colonial domination. Since that revolution, France and the US have cooperated to punish Haiti for daring to resist white supremacy. An onerous payment of reparations to France was compounded by US military occupation after 1915.

Under President Woodrow Wilson, the racist ideals of the US imperial interests were reinforced in Haiti in a nineteen-year military occupation that was promoted by American business interests in the country. Genocidal violence from the Dominican Republic in 1937 strengthened the bonds between militarism and extreme violence in the society. Martial law, forced labour, racism and extreme repression were cemented in the society. Duvalierism in the form of the medical doctor François Duvalier mobilized a variant of Negritude in the 50s to cement a regime of thuggery, aligned with the Cold War goals of the United States in the Caribbean. The record of the Duvalier regime was reprehensible in every form, but this kind of government received military and intelligence assistance from the United States in a region where the Cuban revolution offered an alternative. Francois Duvalier died in 1971 and was succeeded by his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who continued the tradition of rule by violence (the notorious Tonton Macoute) until this system was overthrown by popular uprisings in 1986.

The Haitian independence struggles at the start of the 19th century had registered one of the most fundamental blows to the institutions of chattel slavery and colonial domination.

On 16 December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the presidency by a landslide in what were widely reported to be the first free elections in Haiti’s history. Legislative elections in January 1991 gave Aristide supporters a plurality in Haiti’s parliament. The Lavalas movement of the Aristide leadership was the first major antidote to the historical culture of repression and violence. The United States and France opposed this new opening of popular expression such that military intervention, supported by external forces in North America and the Organization of American States, brought militarists and drug dealers under General Joseph Raoul Cédras to the forefront of the society. The working peoples of Haiti were crushed by an alliance of local militarists, external military peacekeepers and drug dealers. The noted Haitian writer, Edwidge Danticat, has written extensively on the consequences of repeated military interventions, genocide and occupation in the society while the population sought avenues to escape these repressive orders. After the removal of the Aristide government in 2004, it was the expressed plan of the local elites and the external forces that the majority of the Haitian population should be excluded from genuine forms of participatory democracy, including elections.

Repression, imperial NGOs and humanitarian domination

The devastating earthquake of January 2010 further deepened the tragic socio-economic situation in Haiti. An estimated 230,000 Haitians lost their lives, 300,000 were injured, and more than 1.5 million were displaced as a result of collapsed buildings and infrastructure. External military interventions by the United Nations, humanitarian workers and international foundations joined in the corruption to strengthen the anti-democratic forces in Haitian society. The Clinton Foundation of the United States was complicit in imposing the disastrous presidency of Michel Martelly on Haitian society after the earthquake. The book by Jonathan Katz, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, provides a gripping account of the corruption in Haiti. So involved were the Clintons in the rot in Haiti that Politico Magazine dubbed Bill and Hilary, The King and Queen of Haiti.

In 2015, Jovenel Moïse was elected president in a very flawed process, but was only able to take office in 2017. From the moment he entered the presidency, his administration became immersed in the anti-people traditions that had kept the ruling elites together with the more than 10,000 international NGOs that excluded Haitians from participating in the projects for their own recovery. President Moïse carved out political space in Haiti with the support of armed groups who were deployed as death squads with the mission of terrorizing popular spaces and repressing supporters of the Haitian social movement. In a society where the head of state did not have a monopoly over armed gangs, kidnappings, murder (including the killing of schoolchildren) and assassinations got out of control. Under Moïse, Haiti had become an imbroglio where the government and allied gangs organized a series of massacres in poor neighbourhoods known to host anti-government organizing, killing dozens at a time.

Moïse and the extension of repression in Haiti

Moïse remained president with the connivance of diplomats and foundations from Canada, France and the United States. These countries and their leaders ignored the reality that the Haitian elections of 2017 were so deeply flawed and violent that almost 80 per cent of Haitian voters did not, or could not, vote. Moïse, with the support of one section of the Haitian power brokers, avoided having any more elections, and so parliament became inoperative in January 2020, when the terms of most legislators expired. When mayors’ terms expired in July 2020, Moïse personally appointed their replacements. This accumulation of power by the president deepened the divisions within the capitalist classes in Haiti. Long-simmering tensions between the mulatto and black capitalists were exacerbated under Moïse who mobilized his own faction on the fact that he was seeking to empower and enrich the black majority. Thugs and armed gangs were integrated into the drug hub and money laundering architecture that came to dominate Haiti after 2004.

After the Trump administration intensified its opposition to the Venezuelan government, the political and commercial leadership in Haiti became suborned to the international mercenary and drug systems that were being mobilized in conjunction with the military intelligence elements in Florida and Colombia. President Jovenel Moïse’s term, fed by spectacular and intense struggles between factions of the looters, was scheduled to come to a legal end in February 2021. Moïse sought to remain in power, notwithstanding the Haitian constitution, the electoral law, or the will of the Haitian people.

So involved were the Clintons in the rot in Haiti that Politico Magazine dubbed Bill and Hilary, The King and Queen of Haiti.

Since the removal of Aristide and the marginalization of the Lavalas forces from the political arena in Haiti, the US has been more focused on strengthening the linkages between the Haitian drug lords and the money launderers in Colombia, Florida, Dominican Republic, and Venezuelan exiles. It was therefore not surprising that the mercenary industry, with its linkages to financial forces in Florida, has been implicated in the assassination of President Moïse. The Core Group of Canada, France and the US has not once sought to deploy the resources of the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to penetrate the interconnections between politicians in Haiti and the international money laundering and mercenary market.

Working for democratic transition in Haiti

The usual handlers of Haitian repression created the Core Group within one month of Moïse’s assassination. Canada, France and the United States had historically been implicated in the mismanaging of Haiti along with the United Nations. Now, the three countries have mobilized the OAS (with its checkered history), Brazil and the European Union to add their weight to a new transition that will continue to exclude the majority of the people of Haiti. It has been clear that under the current system of destabilization and violence, social peace will be necessary before elections can take place in Haiti.

Moïse sought to remain in power, notwithstanding the Haitian constitution, the electoral law, or the will of the Haitian people.

The continuous infighting among the Haitian ruling elements after the assassination was temporarily resolved at the end of July when Ariel Henry was confirmed by the US and France as Prime Minister. Henry had been designated as prime minister by Moïse days before his assassination. The popular groups in Haiti that had opposed Moïse considered the confirmation of Ariel Henry as a slap in the face because they had been demonstrating for the past four years for a more robust change to the political landscape. These organizations mobilized in what they called the Commission, (a gathering of civil society groups and political parties with more than 150 members), and had been holding marathon meetings to publicly work out what kind of transitional government they would want to see. According to the New York Times, rather than a consensus, the Core Group of international actors imposed a “unilateral proposal” on the people of Haiti.

Haiti is a member of CARICOM. The Caribbean community has proposed a longer transition period overseen by CARICOM for the return of Haiti to democracy. With the experience of the UN in Haiti, the Caribbean community has, through its representative on the UN Security Council, proposed the mobilization of the peacekeeping resources and capabilities of the UN to be deployed to CARICOM in order to organize a credible transition to democracy in Haiti. The nature and manner of the assassination of President Moïse has made more urgent the need for genuine reconstruction and support for democratic transition in Haiti.

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How Dadaab Has Changed the Fortunes of North-Eastern Kenya

Despite the hostile rhetoric and threats of closure, the presence of refugees in the camps in northern-eastern Kenyan has benefited the host communities.

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In the 1960s, Kenya had a progressive refugee policy that allowed refugees to settle anywhere in the country and to access education. This approach created in Kenya a cadre of skilled and professional refugees. However, the policy changed in the 1990s due to an overwhelming influx of refugees and asylum seekers escaping conflict in Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Kenya switched to an encampment policy for refugees, who were mainly confined to camps.

Although there are refugees living in urban and peri-urban areas elsewhere in the country, for over two decades, northern Kenya has hosted a disproportionate number of the refugees living in Kenya. The region has been home to one of the world’s largest refugee camps, with generations of lineage having an impact on the economic, social, cultural, and ecological situation of the region because of the support provided by the government and by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in education, health and security services.

Mandera and Marsabit counties, both of which boarder with Ethiopia, Wajir County which borders with both Ethiopia and Somalia and, Garissa County which borders with Somalia, have hosted refugees and migrants displaced from their countries of origin for various reasons. In 2018, the town of Moyale, which is on the Ethiopian boarder in Marsabit County, temporarily hosted over 10,000 Ethiopians escaping military operations in Ethiopia’s Moyale District.    

Elwak town in Wajir County occasionally hosts pastoralist communities from Somalia who cross into Kenya seeking pasture for their livestock. While the movement of refugees into Marsabit and Wajir counties has been of a temporary nature, Garissa County has hosted refugees for decades.

Located 70 kilometres from the border with Somalia, the Dadaab refugee complex was established in the 1990s and has three main camps: Dagahaley, Ifo, and Hagadera. Due to an increase in refugee numbers around 2011, the Kambioos refugee camp in Fafi sub-county was established to host new arrivals from Somalia and to ease pressure on the overcrowded Hagadera refugee camp. The Kambioos camp was closed in 2019 as the refugee population fell.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the Refugee Affairs Secretariat (RAS), the Dadaab refugee complex currently hosts over 226, 689 refugees, 98 per cent of whom are from Somalia. In 2015, the refugee population in the Dadaab refugee complex was over 300,000, larger than that of the host community. In 2012, the camp held over 400,000 refugees leading to overstretched and insufficient resources for the growing population.

Under international refugee and human rights law, the government has the sole responsibility of hosting and caring for refugees. However, there is little information regarding the investments made by the Kenyan government in the refugee sector in the north-eastern region over time. Moreover, the government’s investment in the sector is debatable since there was no proper legal framework to guide refugee operations in the early 1990s. It was only in 2006 that the government enacted the Refugee Act that formally set up the Refugee Affairs Secretariat mandated to guide and manage the refugee process in Kenya.

While the Refugee Act of 2006 places the management of refugee affairs in the hands of the national government, devolved county governments play a significant role in refugee operations. With the 2010 constitution, the devolution of social functions such as health and education has extended into refugee-hosting regions and into refugee camps. While devolution in this new and more inclusive system of governance has benefited the previously highly marginalised north-eastern region through a fairer distribution of economic and political resources, there is however little literature on how the refugees benefit directly from the county government resource allocations.

The three north-eastern counties are ranked among the leading recipients of devolved funds: Mandera County alone received US$88 million in the 2015/2016 financial year, the highest allocation of funds after Nairobi and Turkana, leading to developmental improvements.

However, it can be argued that the allocation of funds from the national government to the northern frontier counties by the Kenya Commission on Revenue Allocation—which is always based on the Revenue Allocation table that prioritizes population, poverty index, land area, basic equal share and fiscal responsibility—may not have been taking the refugee population into account. According to the 2019 census, the population of Dadaab sub-county is 185,252, a figure that is well below the actual refugee population. The increase in population in the north-eastern region that is due to an increase in the refugee population calls for an increase in the allocation of devolved funds.

The three north-eastern counties are ranked among the leading recipients of devolved funds.

Dadaab refugee camp has been in the news for the wrong reasons. Security agencies blame the refugees for the increased Al Shabaab activity in Kenya, and even though these claims are disputed, the government has made moves to close down the camp. In 2016, plans to close Dadaab were blocked by the High Court which declared the proposed closure unconstitutional. In 2021, Kenya was at it again when Ministry of Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’I tweeted that he had given the UNHCR 14 days to draw up a plan for the closure of the camp. The UNHCR and the government issued a joint statement agreeing to close the camp in June 2022.

The security rhetoric is not new. There has been a sustained campaign by Kenya to portray Dadaab as a security risk on national, regional and international platforms. During the 554th meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Forum held in November 2015, it was concluded that the humanitarian character of the Dadaab refugee camp had been compromised. The AU statements, which may have been drafted by Kenya, claimed that the attacks on Westgate Mall and Garissa University were planned and launched from within the refugee camps. These security incidents are an indication of the challenges Kenya has been facing in managing security. For example, between 2010 and 2011, there were several IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) incidents targeting police vehicles in and around Dadaab where a dozen officers were injured or killed. In October 2012, two people working for the medical charity Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) were kidnapped in Dadaab. Local television network NTV has described the camp as “a womb of terror” and “a home for al-Shabaab operations”.

There has been a sustained campaign by Kenya to portray Dadaab as a security risk on national, regional and international platforms.

Security restrictions and violent incidents have created a challenging operational environment for NGOs, leading to the relocation of several non-local NGO staff as well as contributing to a shrinking humanitarian space. Some teachers and health workers from outside the region have refused to return to the area following terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab, leaving behind large gaps in the health, education, and nutrition sectors.

However, despite the challenging situation, the refugee camps have also brought many benefits, not only to Kenya as a country but also to the county governments and the local host communities.

Education

According to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) half the refugee population in the IGAD member states are children of school-going age, between 4 and 18 years.

In Garissa, the education sector is one of the areas that has benefited from the hosting of refugees in the county because the host community has access to schools in the refugee camps. Windle Trust, an organisation that offers scholarships to students in secondary schools and in vocational training institutes, has been offering scholarships to both the refugees and the host communities. In July 2021, over 70 students benefited from a project run by International Labour Organisations (ILO) in partnership with Garissa county governments, the East African Institute of Welding (EAIW) and the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) to give industrial welding skills to refugees and host communities.

However, despite the measures taken by the Kenyan government to enrol refugees in Kenyan schools, there is a notable gap that widens as students go through the different levels of education. Statistics show that of the school-going refugee population, only a third get access to secondary education of which a sixth get to join tertiary institutions. This is well below the government’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 target that seeks to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. This also reflects the situation of the host community’s education uptake. Other investments in the education sector that have targeted the host communities include recruitment and deployment of early childhood education teachers to schools in the host community by UNHCR and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Non-governmental/intergovernmental support 

The presence of refugees has led to NGOs setting up and running projects in the camps. According to Garissa County’s Integrated Development Plan, there are over 70 non-governmental organisations present, with the majority operating around the Dadaab refugee complex and within the host communities. The UNHCR estimates that it will require about US$149.6 million to run its operations in Dadaab Camp this year. However, as of May 2021, only US$45.6 million—31 per cent of the total amount required—had been received.

The decrease in humanitarian funding has had an impact on the livelihoods of refugees and host communities in north-eastern Kenya.  According to the World Bank, 73 per cent of the population of Garissa County live below the poverty line. In the absence of social safety nets, locals have benefited from the humanitarian operations in and around the camp. The UNHCR reports that about 40,000 Kenyan nationals within a 50km radius of the Dadaab refugee camp ended up enrolling as refugees in order to access food and other basic services in the camps.

In 2014, the UNHCR reported that it had supported the Kenyan community residing in the wider Daadab region in establishing over US$5 million worth of community assets since 2011. The presence of refugees has also increased remittances from the diaspora, and there are over 50 remittance outlets operating in the Dadaab camp, increasing economic opportunities and improving services. Using 2010 as the reference year, researchers have found that the economic benefits of the Dadaab camp to the host community amount to approximately US$14 million annually.

The UNHCR reported that it had supported the Kenyan community residing in the wider Daadab region in establishing over US$5 million of community assets since 2011 since 2011.

To reduce overdependence on aid and humanitarian funding in running refugee operations, the County Government of Garissa developed a Garissa Integrated Socio-Economic Development Plan (GISEDP) in 2019 that provided ways of integrating refugees into the socio-economic life of the community to enhance their self-reliance. The European Union announced a Euro 5 million funding programme to support the socio-economic development plan, thus opening up opportunities for development initiatives including income generating activities such as the flourishing businesses at Hagadera market. The recent announcement of the planned closure of the camp has put these plans at risk.

A voice

The host community is increasingly involved in issues that affect both the locals living around the Dadaab refugee complex and the refugees themselves, with the voice of the community gaining prominence in decision-making regarding the county budget and sometimes even regarding NGO operations. NGOs periodically conduct needs assessments in and around the camp to guide the budgeting and planning process for subsequent years and the host community is always consulted.

Interest in governance issues has also increased. For example, between 2010 and 2015 the host community successfully lobbied for increased employment opportunities for locals in the UNHCR operations. With experience in the humanitarian field, some from within the host communities have secured positions as expatriates in international organizations across the globe, adding to increased international remittances to Garissa County.

Health

Research reveals that, compared to other pastoralist areas, health services for host communities have improved because of the presence of aid agencies in Dadaab. Hospitals managed by Médicins Sans Frontières and the International Red Cross in Dagahaley and Hagadera respectively are said to be offering better services than the sub-county hospital in Dadaab town. The two hospitals are Ministry of Health-approved vaccination centres in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite the massive investments made in the health sector by humanitarian organisations in and around Dadaab, both UNICEF and the World Health Organisation have identified the camp as an entry point for infectious diseases like polio and measles into Kenya. There was a confirmed case of WPV1 (wild poliovirus) in a 4-month-old girl from the Dadaab refugee camp in May 2013. This is a clear indication of the health risks associated with the situation.

Researchers have found that the economic benefits of the Dadaab camp to the host community amount to approximately US$14 million annually.

Other problems associated with the presence of the camps include encroachment of the refugee population on local land, leading to crime and hostility between the two communities. These conflicts are aggravated by the scramble for the little arable land available in this semi-arid region that makes it difficult to grow food and rear farm animals, leading to food shortages.

While it is important to acknowledge that progress has been made in integrating refugees into the north-eastern region, and that some development has taken place in the region, more needs to be done to realise the full potential of the region and its communities.  Kenya’s security sector should ensure that proper measures are put in place to enhance security right from the border entry point in order to weed out criminals who take advantage of Kenya’s acceptance of refugees. The country should not expel those who have crossed borders in search of refuge but should tap fully into the benefits that come with hosting refugees.

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