The Great Wall of Kenya

Kenyan army soldiers patrol in Tabda, across the border inside Somalia (Photo: Ben Curtis/AP)

Stretching from the Indian Ocean to the city of Mandera covering the Kenyan/ Somalian border, what is being referred to as the ‘Great Wall of Kenya’ is being erected, supposedly symbolising “the way Kenya will change after [the shooting at] Garissa”, just as “America changed after 9/11”, as stated by Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto.

It is hoped that the wall will boost security within Kenya after a wave of attacks from Somalian terrorist group Al Shabaab that have claimed scores of lives most notably the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and Garissa University attack in April, symbolising a step towards a more secure Kenya.

Yet, it appears that this wall symbolises quite the opposite; Kenya’s failing counter terrorism strategy. The wall succeeds in distracting and deceiving Kenyans rather than defeating the threat posed by Al-Shabaab. The real threat to Kenya is not in Somalia but rather on its own side of the wall as Al-Shabaab aims to conquer Kenya by dividing it from within. Its attacks focus on causing both economic instability by crippling the country’s tourism industry and in exploiting religious divides within Kenya. By ignoring this truth Kenya risks further attacks against its citizens, and must change their approach to spare the spilling of more innocent blood.

The war against Al-Shabaab will be won in the classroom not the battlefield

Kenya has a tendency to blame all problems with terrorism on the political instability in neighbouring Somalia, fundamentally due to Al-Shabaab’s Somalian roots. This tendency causes Kenyans to fail to fully recognise the threat the group poses within Kenya. The surge in support for a wall came following the Al-Shabaab attack at Garissa University, yet Kenyan authorities seem not to have recognised that all four of the Garissa attackers came from Kenya, rather than over the border; this complete lack of any internal counter terrorism strategy will only cause the loss of more lives within the country. Once recognition that Al-Shabaab’s influence runs through Kenya and not just Somalia, a significant effort can begin to be made through communities and educational facilities, combating the group’s poisonous ideology. The war against Al-Shabaab will be won in the classroom not the battlefield, and the sooner Kenya realises this, the quicker the group will be defeated.

Whilst improving community cohesion and education is important, it must be done in conjunction with economic development. Kenya’s great wall has worsened rather than improved the economic prospects of those who live near the country’s border. In the border towns of Mandera in Kenya and Bula Hawa in Somalia, the lines are so blurred that traders and people move back and forth freely, businesses operate on both sides and mobile phone signals even alternate between countries. By dividing the two country’s Kenya is going to further exacerbate rather than heal the regions problems.

If Al-Shabaab is to be defeated Kenya must adopt a fourfold counter terrorism approach which recognises the complexity of the threat posed to the country:

Firstly, Kenya must stabilise neighbouring Somalia and strengthen the country’s government. This can be done through international organizations such as the African Union which currently already offer assistance in Somalia. Once Somalia has been strengthened, Al-Shabaab will be under significant pressure; it will no longer be able to act with impunity in the Somali countryside and will be on the back foot in the war unable to properly train its recruits and plan its attacks.

When stability has been returned to Somalia, Kenya must get its own house in order. This means that corruption must be eliminated, lessening Al-Shabaab’s ability to bribe its way through Kenya avoiding military checkpoints. In Kenya, corruption is so systemic that entire system of public institutions are essentially privatised. The system is not corrupt, rather, corruption is the system. By bringing corruption to an end, Kenya significantly reduces the group’s ability to operate reducing both its capacity to launch attacks and its ability to train new recruits; an international anti-corruption court enjoying the same kind of powers held by weapons inspectors would go a long way.

It is not enough to simply reduce Al-Shabaab’s operational capacity. The group cannot be destroyed solely through military means, instead the groups appeal must be reduced. This can be done by boosting the economic prospects for those living within the country’s poorer Northern and coastal regions, reducing people’s dependence on the salary the group pays its fighters.

By saving the next generation from the lies of Islamic extremism, recruit numbers will dwindle

The fourth and final nail in the group’s coffin will then be the development of an internal counter terrorism strategy which targets those who are at risk of being deceived by Al-Shabaabs propaganda. By saving the next generation from the lies of Islamic extremism, recruit numbers will dwindle until the group is both small and unable to carry out significant attacks against targets in East Africa. I admit that this strategy cannot fully remove the possibility for lone wolf terrorism, but it can reduce the current threat posed by the group and save countless lives in doing so.

Walls are a comforting proposition for Kenya. There is something reassuring about shutting everyone else out and pretending as you go to sleep at night that the world’s problems are not yours; that the bad guys can’t get you. This is a reassuring fantasy rather than reality, countries cannot shut themselves off from their neighbours and Kenya has yet to realise this. George Morara, vice chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, stated that “the war on terror must be a multi-agency, well-coordinated and intelligence-led undertaking.” Engaging with the world rather than withdrawing from and getting its own house in order by recognising the country’s internal problems is the only way to defeat a threat that operates internationally and across borders.


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