Would forcibly sending Somali refugees home improve Kenya’s security?

On 11th of April, 2015, the Kenyan Deputy President Hon. William Ruto ordered the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to close the Dadaab refugee camp within three months. This means that a total of 335,565 Somali refugees will be required to leave Kenya by end of June 2015 or the Kenyan Government will forcibly remove them. This news was jubilantly received by Kenyans, if late night news polls are anything to go by.

However few are critically and rationally reviewing the rationale of moving the refugees and its implications. This blog post attempts to do this as a way of contributing to the debate on the efficacy of such a move. The posts looks at who a refugee is and addresses the nexus between hosting them and national security in Kenya. It also looks at the implications of forcible repatriation of these refugees into Somalia. It concludes by addressing alternative means to address Kenya’s security challenge while adhering to the law governing refugee protection.

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is a person who flees their home; crosses an internationally recognized border to seek protection from persecution (loosely defined as discriminatory treatment) or events seriously disturbing public order. According to available statistics there are about 1.6 m refugees in the world 50% of whom are under the age of 18 while 49% are women. In Kenya, the refugee population stands at about 569,772 with a majority being Somali refugees followed by Ethiopian and Congolese refugees. Most of the refugees in Kenya, like the Somali, have fled their countries of origin owing to conflict; much like the Kenyans that live in Uganda having fled the post-election violence in 2007/08.

A person becomes a refugee after an evaluation process called the refugee status determination (RSD). This process sieves genuine refugees from other non-deserving elements such as combatants and terrorists. Therefore, before a person can be granted refugee status, their refugee claim is thoroughly investigated to ensure that they are genuine. This means that refugee protection is civilian in character and its aim is to protect persons who flee their countries of origin to save their lives and limbs.

Are Somali refugees a threat to national security?

There has been a lot of talk about refugees, particularly Somali refugees, being a threat to national security. But is there any evidence to this? Recent experience shows that there is none.

In December, 2012, the Government of Kenya ordered that all urban residing refugees be relocated to the camps. The main argument presented by the government was that they presented a threat to national security and thus needed to be contained in refugee camps. A case was lodged at the High Court to challenge this argument. The government was given an opportunity to present evidence that links refugees to insecurity in the country; it failed.

In December, 2014, the Government of Kenya – through the Security Laws Amendment Act, 2014 – attempted to limit the number of refugees in the country to 150,000. A case was lodged at the High Court to inter alia challenge this provision of the Act. The government was given another opportunity to prove the causal link between hosting refugees and insecurity in the county; it failed.

These instances lead one to conclude that the government lacks evidence that links refugees to insecurity. What pervades public discourse at the moment are generalizations not based on facts. But if there isn’t evidence directly linking refugees to the current insecurity in the country, why are they being targeted? The answer to this question lies in the gaps in our security system.

The Refugee Consortium of Kenya conducted a study in 2012 that partly looked at security at the Dadaab refugee camp. One of the findings was that Somali refugees, particularly those that left Somalia in 2011, escaped forcible recruitment into al-Shabaab. Further, the report showed that even after escaping into Kenya to seek asylum from this militia, some recruiters still followed them to Dadaab to recruit their children and young men. How is this possible? How can al-Shabaab access the Dadaab refugee camp without detection?

This investigative piece appears to provide an answer: corruption and complacency. Granted that the Kenya-Somali border is porous, riddled with many unofficial routes (panya [rat] routes), however corruption poses the greater danger to our national security. This is how arms and combatants can be able to make their way from Somali, past government check points to recruit refugee children into their ranks. This is how arms and militia personnel can be able to come from Somalia past government check points and hit Nairobi’s Westgate Mall and Garissa University College.

Be that as it may, al-Shabaab operatives are not the only ones recruiting fighters from the camps. In a 2009 report, the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) stood accused of militarizing the camp. Young Somali men were openly and blatantly recruited to join the Transitional Government Forces (TGF) fighting al-Shabaab at the time. Although the exercise was later abandoned, damage had already been done as most of these fighters, with arms and training from the KDF ended up joining the ranks of al-Shabaab. This demonstrates complacency on the part of the government which is supposed to protect the lives of civilian populations in distress of terror from the al-Shabaab militia.

What are the implications of forcibly sending refugees to Somalia?

The first and obvious implication would be Kenya would be in violation of its national and international obligation to protect refugees. The law dictates that refugees cannot be forcibly taken back to their country of origin where the threat to their lives or physical integrity still exists. This is the principle of non-refoulement. In the Somali case, al-Shabaab is still a real threat for Somali refugees and this could be the reason many of them are hesitant to return home despite there being a tripartite agreement aimed at voluntary repatriation of Somali refugees in safety and dignity.

Secondly, and perhaps not so obvious, is the danger of driving fresh recruits into the hands of al-Shabaab. Forcibly pushing these refugees into Somalia would first create resentment and secondly foment desperation. Al-Shabaab would be keen to use these two ingredients to recruit this population into its ranks.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it will divert attention from the real issues affecting our security system: corruption and complacency. Kenyans know only too well that billions of shillings have been diverted from public coffers for private gain. This includes security related contracts. Before the Garissa attack, there was huge public outcry over the level of corruption in the internal security docket (as it then was).

Another monster is the complacency levels within the security structure in Kenya. How often have we heard that intelligence of an attack here or there was available and nothing was done to prevent it? How often have we been regaled by blame games following a terrorist attack and nothing seems to change? During the Westgate attack it was the lack of coordination that prolonged the siege after KDF forces shot and killed a Recce company squad leader leading the latter to retreat. Again lack of coordination cost more lives in the Garissa attack where the Recce company took more than eight hours to arrive at the scene to conduct a 12 minute operation. It should not be lost on Kenyans that these lapses, what I call complacency, is the major reason the government cannot contain the terror menace.

What alternatives are there to forcible repatriation?

The first alternative to this is to officially recognize combating corruption and complacency as a key pillar to the counter-terrorism strategy in Kenya. These are the real challenges plaguing national security in the country. So long as these two exist, Kenyans may not know any reprieve from terror attacks.

Secondly, the intelligence and operation branches of the security forces should endevour to isolate and arrest those individuals in the camps recruiting refugees into al-Shabaab. These are the real culprits and a serious threat to Kenya’s national security.

Thirdly, the Government of Kenya should focus more on the voluntary repatriation process already in place. Through this process, Somali refugees will peacefully and voluntarily relocate into Somalia without the risk of bitterness that may drive them into the hands of the determined al-Shabaab operatives.


In conclusion, it should be noted that the refugee regime is a civilian and humanitarian affair. The regime has a protective element embedded in it that segregates genuine asylum seekers from individuals involved in military operations and terrorism. Forcibly sending Somali refugees into Somali may prove to be counter-productive especially if the Kenyan Government is serious about stemming radicalization. Seriously dealing with corruption and complacency will provide a long-term efficient counter-terrorism strategy as opposed to blanket condemnation of a population in need of protection.

The Westgate Aftermath: What really is Kenya’s National Security Policy on Terrorism?

After a long hard look at some pieces of information, I think I can make and defend a valid proposition of the problem that plagued the Westgate mission. The proposition revolves around what Graham T. Allison called Government Politics Model or Model III. This is familiar to students of foreign policy analysis as it was a structure proposed by Allison to measure and understand foreign policy decisions made in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The proposition is that unwarranted and ill-timed competition between the Kenya Police Force and the Kenya Defense Forces cost Kenya the initiative in the attack. Along with the initiative, a lot of civilians needlessly lost their lives.

On the afternoon of 21st of September, terrorist orchestrated what appeared to be a well planned attack on Westgate. This is an upmarket shopping complex owned by a wealthy Israeli businessman. As is custom for most Kenyans of means, the place was filled with shoppers and fun seekers as they sought to relax in the company of friends and loved ones. Then the terrorists struck at around half past noon, turning an otherwise uneventful and quiet day into a dark chapter in the history of the state.

Through the media, the police appeared to be taking lead on the matter. The ones that had arrived on the scene did what their basic police training could allow them. Granted that they initially thought that it was just another bank robbery they gave it their best shot until they realized they might have been way in over their heads. At that point, the elite Recce company was called in to assess and neutralize the threat as well as save ‘hostages’.

I mean no disrespect to the families that have been affected because of the tragedy by saying that there were ‘hostages’ at the mall. The simple reason behind the use of quotation marks is that the mall attack did not constitute a hostage situation. The terrorists did not appear to have made any demands using the civilian population as bargaining chips. Rather theirs was an insidious murderous plot that aimed to cause as much shock and pain on the civilian population as well as the security community.

With the Recce in the fray, it appeared that the situation was being handled, after all they are trained for this sort of thing. However images of the military soon flashed across the screen. With what I can only refer to a projection of force, tanks from military barracks created blockades around the site. The military was now involved, and would be for the next four days.

In the process of military engagement, two Recce company officers were shot, one fatally. The move precipitated the withdrawal of the police unit and the taking over of the operation by the military which had to regroup and plan. It is alleged by the media and some security analysts that this may have given the terrorists valuable time to gain initiative from security forces.

This scenario raised some important question about our security policy, especially in emergency situations. One was why wasn’t the military informed that Recce company was in the building and had cornered some of the terrorists (if not all of the terrorists as some released footage appears to show four attackers as opposed to the 10-15 alleged)? Who was supposed to be in charge of the operation? Was it the police or the military? Finally was there any body to coordinate information sharing between the myriad of security organs involved in the mission?

Information is man’s best friend, especially if you are fighting a terrorist. I therefore find it difficult to shallow – hook, line and sinker – the idea that the military had no idea that the Recce company was in the building and had secured the ground and first floors. Weren’t the military men briefed as they went into the building? If not, how was the Interior Minister able to brief the nation of the progress of the mission if information was not flowing from an official channel somewhere in the building?

Secondly, there is the matter of command chain. Who was supposed to be in charge of the operation? It depends on the mission. According to the KDF Act, s.32, if the force is deployed by the National Security Council to restore peace domestically, the overall superintendence of the operation would be under the Commander Defense Forces. However, if they are deployed in support of the National Police Service under s.33 in cases of emergencies and disasters, they are under the command of the Inspector General of Police. In this case, it was the latter provision that was in operation as the President expressly put the command structure under the Inspector General of Police but what happened?

The Commander of the Defense Forces appeared to be the one in charge. He gave press briefing on mostly inaccurate information leading one to ponder whether he was a victim of misinformation or a perpetrator. All along the Inspector General of Police appeared to be a back banner to the array of security personnel at the scene.

I then draw a conclusion based on these verifiable facts that indeed a bureaucratic model could be used to analyse the situation. In this model various government agencies that have independent mandates fight over resources and tasks and rarely share information on the matter they engage in. In this model, they compete for the attention of the hand that feeds them as they face off to see which organ requires more funding, training, etc. I strongly believe that this is what Kenyans were exposed to during the siege.

Finally, I think a recommendation would be beneficial even though those tasked with the duty of its implementation may not read it. Kenya should consider having a proper national security policy on terrorism. Such a policy should have an inter agency working group under the auspices of the National Security Council that would be involved in case of an attack and more importantly what is the correct chain of command. Through this task force, information would be readily shared among  the various agencies. This would have the capacity of efficiency and effectiveness and would nip any bad blood between security forces in the bud.

It also important to note here that the safety and security of Kenyans is in their hands. That is why I support the ‘Nyumba Kumi’ plan of vigilance. However this policy is a preventive one and does not address what happens if another attack were ever to occur (God forbid). Be that as it may, my heart felt condolence go out to the families of the bereaved, to those who have to look at the future generation and explain to them why their kin had to die.

Dependency Approach in Kenya’s Foreign Policy: The Case of the 1964 Defence Pact

Over the weekend I read an article by Samuel Makinda on Kenya’s foreign policy. It is titled ‘From Quiet Diplomacy to Cold War Politics‘. His was an analysis of what drove Kenya’s foreign policy from independence. The main argument he propounds is what is now known as the dependency approach; dependency on foreign capital.

Dependency on foreign capital is what Makinda uses to explain Kenya’s reluctance to take radical stances on international affairs. This foreign policy condition he called ‘quiet diplomacy’, a term he borrowed from Prof. John Okumu who has also published academic articles on Kenya’s foreign policy. In Makinda’s view, Kenya could not authoritatively speak on pressing international issues owing to the fact that she was beholden to foreign capital.

Since taking up the capitalist approach, foreign capital was imperative to Kenya’s economic development. Such ties to this capital meant that the ruling elite could not take up any policy that would adversely harm the interests of those who wielded such capital and thus a convergence of interets. Therefore the true power behind foreign policy making in Kenya were those who had control of the foreign capital, at least according to Makinda.

The power of foreign capital shaped Kenya’s foreign policy in all spheres. In East Africa, Kenya took the position if a sub imperial power. In this he meant that she exploited the markets of her sister East African states to the benefit of this foreign capital. That these states provided a market for her goods was one of the reasons Makinda linked the major foreign policy concern to foreign capital as the dominant determining factor in the foreign policy making process. This was especially true for Tanzania which provided an opening for the southern African market.

In African and indeed international affairs, Makinda states that the same could be observed from Kenya’s behaviour. Kenya refrained from taking extreme stances as those akin to most African states then. This was because the Kenyan ruling elite did not want to scare off foreign capital pursuing ‘irresponsible’ policies.

This led him to make the assertion that the defence pact signed between Kenya and Ethiopia was a result of this dependence. In his view, Kenya outsourced military capacity so that she can concentrate on attracting and maintaining foreign capital. This was during the time Somalia was funding the shifta war in Kenya while engaging in bellicose rhetoric against Ethiopia.

This line of reasoning presents a problem when it comes to the security concerns of that time. Makinda ignores the fact that Kenya’s military was weak. In fact it was only in 1964 that Kenya asked for assistance from Britain to set up an air force and a navy; the same year when it entered into that common defence pact with Ethiopia. The fact that he never comments on the issue presents a chink in his argument.

Further, Kenya was making concerted efforts to source for military equipment and training for her army. This fact, in my view seriously clashes with the notion that Kenya wanted only to concentrate on attracting and maintaining foreign capital. Undeniably, the attraction and maintenance of foreign capital was top on the foreign policy agenda but so was security. Kenya must have felt that it was not in a position to cope with the increasing threat to her security especially being very young in independence.

In as much as I think that Makinda missed the mark on this, his analysis does provide valuable insight into Kenya’s foreign policy. On independence, it must have dawned on Kenyatta, I imagine, that he could not just chase foreigners away. He needed to maintain them owing to the fact that they controlled factors of production. For him, to throw the mzungu (Europeans) out like what many radicals in government had hoped, would be tantamount to committing ‘national economic suicide’ at least according to the nature of domestic and foreign policies he adopted.

With this in mind, it is not hard to see Makinda’s point on foreign capital. To this day a vestigial of this dependence remains in the so called economic diplomacy though not to the same degree. Kenya’s foreign policy is anchored on this pillar wherein foreign policy is a component of national development. The only difference now is that the pool of so called development partners has increased and thus Kenya’s ability to maneuver to the east.

All in all, that was an interesting read.