In the past two weeks, Kenya has launched one of its most extensive security crackdowns in a decade across its major cities and towns in response to a huge crime wave and an upsurge in terrorist attacks.
Thousands of National Police Service and General Service Unit personnel have been mobilised to conduct “stop-and-search” operations and, if necessary, use lethal force to disrupt terrorist cells and crime gangs.
Thousands of people, mostly Somalis, have been rounded up and are now interned at the Kasarani Sports Stadium on the edge of the capital.
The operation, which coincides with the governing Jubilee Coalition’s one year anniversary and widely framed as the Uhuru administration’s set-piece policy response to insecurity, has elicited a mixed responses, though most of the public appears supportive.
Despite protests and anger from the Somali community, Muslims and human rights organisations, the authorities seem intent to press on with crackdown.
Speaking at a pass-out parade of hundreds of new police officers at the Kiganjo Police Training College in central Kenya on April 4, President Uhuru Kenyatta issued one his sternest warnings to date, hinting that even more robust operations were in the offing to deal with the country’s mounting security problems.
“A lot has been said and we will not talk any more. All we are requesting is for Kenyans to back us in whatever were are going to do,” he said. “Extremists prefer death and destruction than discussion and compromise. They will be dealt with ruthlessly and within the law…”
Judging from the tone of the official utterances, the scale and tempo of the security swoop is likely to be sustained in the coming weeks, and may be ratcheted up and extended.
A number of Somali and Muslim politicians and other community leaders have in recent days stepped up their opposition to the operation, partly in response to the groundswell of popular anger in Muslim-dominated areas of Nairobi and Mombasa.
Some of the MPs leading the charge include leading lights in the governing Jubilee Coalition, including the parliamentary Majority Leader Aden Duale — a situation likely to strain the alliance’s cohesion.
There are growing murmurs over the efficacy of the operation and fears it could potentially complicate Kenya’s counter-terrorism efforts; inflame passions; stoke up Muslim resentment and put Kenya on a collision course with the UN, believed critical of some aspects of the exercise, especially to do with the refugee question.
The policy of locking down entire districts and conducting mass arrests may have its security utility and could, arguably, force communities to isolate criminal elements, step up vigilance and embrace self-policing. But there is risk too it may stir up resentment; catalyse radicalisation and foment greater unrest.
Pressure is mounting on the government to change tack and to put the operation on a less aggravating course. There are suggestions a community-centric policing approach designed to foster trust and co-operation as well as better-targeted and intelligence-led operations stand a better chance of producing beneficial security dividends.
The recently proclaimed Nyumba Kumi policy aimed at encouraging citizens to be more vigilant and to share intelligence with the security services risks failure in a context where communities feel increasingly aggrieved and perceive themselves to be collectively targeted.
The opposition party ODM has expressed support for the government’s new resolve to deal with the problem of insecurity more firmly. But ODM Senator Anyang Nyong’o faulted the authorities for conflating the problem of terrorism with the refugee crisis.
The two are distinctly different and unrelated problems which require different solutions and responses, he said.
With an estimated one million refugees in its soil and frustrated by the fact the congested camps in the northeastern region have now become a permanent feature, and a source of many socio-political and security challenges, it is perhaps understandable that Kenyan authorities would want to seize the opportunity provided by the security operation to pile the pressure on the refugees and the UN in the hope it may extract concessions and improve the chances of making some headway in the quest for repatriation.
But this is highly unlikely, according to most analysts, and the notion that the refugees are the primary drivers of terrorism and insecurity, is contested.
The security conditions in the camps remain shaky and low-level violence is endemic, says an aid worker familiar with the camps, but nothing on the scale of the violence in the late 1990s.
“It is historically true that the camps have been used by armed Somali groups, including Al-Shabaab, to stockpile weapons and to recruit. Al-Shabaab has also used these camps to radicalise the population and to conduct targeted kidnappings and assassinations. But there is evidence this is changing,” the source added.
More stringent security measures are now in place at the camps and newcomers are screened by the UNHCR and the Kenyan police. Community self-policing has also improved and community leaders and clan elders are better informed.
Kenyan and Western intelligence services have in recent years also stepped up their surveillance operations at these camps, sources say.
“Only daft terrorists with no regard for personal safety and operational security can now operate in the camps,” a security analyst told The EastAfrican.
The source further added that many of the terrorist attacks since 1998 have been planned in major urban centres, principally Garissa, Mandera, Wajir, Nairobi and Mombasa.
“Sections of Kenya’s urban centres, especially Eastleigh and Majengo in Nairobi, are poorly-policed and are far more ideal places for terror groups to operate than refugee camps.”
Though the Uhuru administration has come in for heavy criticism for the perceived inability to effectively address the terrorism challenge and the related problem of general insecurity, the truth is that many of the systemic and structural problems that have bedevilled the security organs predate his tenure.