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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Securing Kenya’s Electoral Integrity: Regulating Truth
The Kenyan government has tried to curb the spread of false or inaccurate information through regulation. But outlawing disinformation alone will not address the spread of fake news.
In recent years, it has become relatively common for public entities and politicians in Kenya to disavow certain content shared through social media, claiming it to be false. This year alone, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has had to issue two statements dismissing election-related content as fabricated. In July 2021, it was reported through mainstream media that the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) had arrested an individual involved in online fraud. According to the report, the police suspected that the individual hacked into the IEBC’s database and accessed personal details relating to 61,617 registered voters. Shortly after the news broke, the IEBC claimed it was false. Even more recently, in September, the IEBC had to issue a public statement clarifying that a call for applications for jobs in their voter education programme was fake.
These instances have not taken place in isolation; there is a broader discernible upward trend in false or inaccurate content in Kenya. In a 2018 survey of 2,000 Kenyans by Portland Communications, 90 per cent believed they had interacted with false information relating to the 2017 Kenyan elections, while 87 per cent believed that such content was deliberately false. The issue of deliberately spreading false information was the subject of Odanga Madung and Brian Obilo’s research for the Mozilla Foundation. In their report, they highlighted the extent to which the spread of disinformation in Kenya through Twitter was coordinated and well -organized.
These local developments also occur against a backdrop of global trends with striking similarities. Several governments—including Kenya’s—have attempted to rein in the spread of false or inaccurate information through regulation. For example, in 2018 Kenya enacted the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act (CMCA) which criminalizes sharing false information. Noting that some of these countries have directly linked their regulatory objectives to the safeguarding of their democracy, it is worth exploring the ways in which false or inaccurate content compromises democracies, and in particular, electoral integrity.
To a post-truth world
Undoubtedly, the ability to agree on basic facts is a core tenet of democracy. To optimally make a collective decision, voters ought to have access to the same accurate information. While arriving at a single “objective truth” is not always possible due to mediation in communication, it is important for the citizenry to at least have access to, and acknowledge the basic facts that underpin the political processes they are participating in. The increasing spread of false or inaccurate content in recent years points to the solidifying of a “post truth” age where political rhetoric often appeals to emotion and sentiment with little regard to factual rebuttals.
This post-truth concept is not entirely novel. For example, climate change denial and anti-vaxxer sentiments have long persisted despite widespread availability of evidence to refute them. But in recent years, it has gained significant popularity perhaps due to the increasingly populist nature of political campaigning in the digital age. On the same year Donald Trump won the US elections, Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year was “post-truth”. In his campaign, Trump made it a habit of dismissing mainstream news reporting as “fake news” when it contradicted his narrative and even went ahead to later falsely claim he coined the term. Likely emboldened by these trends, other populist leaders around the world began dismissing news reporting as fabricated when it did not suit their narratives – Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines have both accused journalists of spreading “fake news”.
Rather dangerously, some leaders who sound the alarm over false or inaccurate content are often either linked to the deliberate spread of such content or have benefited from it. Trump’s campaign was boosted by a group of Macedonian teenagers who, driven by advertising revenue on Facebook, generated several seemingly genuine news articles that either directly supported Trump or discredited his opponent, Hillary Clinton. The combination of these leaders casting aspersions as to the integrity of traditional media and the spread of “alternative facts” on social media results in a political environment where voters are highly distrustful of each other and of core institutions such as the media. The danger is exacerbated by the nature of social media and how third parties—often with the aid of social media platforms—are able to curate the type of content users are exposed to in a subtle manner as we discussed in our previous article.
Rather dangerously, some leaders who sound the alarm over false or inaccurate content are often either linked to the deliberate spread of such content or have benefited from it.
Distrusting institutions is not the only risk to democracies. In some cases, false content results in violence. In 2016, following claims that Hillary Clinton was running a ring which that was exploiting children sexually in the basement of a pizza restaurant, a man armed with a gun broke into the restaurant to find out if the claim was true – it was not. More recently, a large-scale attack on the US Capitol took place following the outgoing president’s false claims through social media that the election was stolen. In this case, it was reported that Facebook was aware of the potential for violence arising from the false claims but failed to limit their spread. With real dangers like this in mind, the desire to “regulate truth” is understandable. However, attempts to do so have raised a novel set of challenges. For one, it is extremely difficult to define truth let alone purport to regulate it.
Getting the terminology right
The terms “fake news”, “disinformation”, and “misinformation”’ have featured prominently in discourse on the spread of false content. While these terms are generally used to assert that something is untrue, they are sometimes wrongly conflated. This conflation then impairs any attempts at regulation. The term “fake news” does not necessarily refer to one specific type of content. Clair Wardle of FirstDraft has rightly noted that it is an entire eco-system that includes both misinformation and disinformation. Elsewhere, one of us has categorized the nature of this content into two conceptions for purposes of understanding how to regulate it: the deliberate action and the culture around it.
The deliberate action essentially refers to disinformation. Spreading disinformation is the act of intentionally and knowingly sharing false or inaccurate content. For example, the teens in Macedonia spinning fake articles for advertising revenue were involved in a disinformation campaign. In Kenya, Madung and Obilo identified groups of bloggers who were paid to push trends with false content that maligned certain political actors such as those who filed a petition to oppose the Building Bridges Initiative. These disinformation campaigns are often well coordinated and targeted at a particular outcome. Due to the potency of such campaigns in electoral contexts, they have previously been referred to as “distributed-denial-of-democracy attacks”.
These disinformation campaigns are often successful because of the second categorization – the culture of misinformation. In other words, the increasing likelihood of individuals to share false or inaccurate content unintentionally or inadvertently. Misinformation can range from misleading or alarmist headlines to demonstrably false claims passed on by people who had a good faith belief in the accuracy of those claims. For example, a few years ago, the Kenya Bureau of Standards had to issue a statement denying the existence of “plastic rice” in Kenya following the circulation of a video on WhatsApp implying there was. WhatsApp is a particularly notorious avenue through which misinformation is shared locally. Even mainstream media is sometimes susceptible to sharing misinformation as was seen most recently when several newsrooms reported that a Kenyan Senator dialled into a parliamentary debate session from a bar due to a poorly edited clip that was circulating on social media. They later had to recant upon discovering it was an altered clip.
Even mainstream media is sometimes susceptible to sharing misinformation.
Unlike coordinated disinformation campaigns, which may often be linked to a central source, misinformation entails the public playing an active role in both creating and amplifying narratives. As a result, Renée DiResta has referred to misinformation as ampliganda – amplified propaganda. This culture of misinformation has been enabled by several things. First, the use of social media as a source of news content has led to a decline in gatekeeping or fact-checking of content. Second, the nature of social media is such that it amplifies one’s biases and exposes them to content which often confirms their worldview. This in turn results in their likelihood to consume false or inaccurate content unthinkingly. Lastly, the existence of disinformation campaigns, and the discrediting of claims as false by politicians further muddies the waters, making people unsure of what is “objectively true”. This has made addressing the problem of fake news difficult.
Conceivably due to a focus on disinformation, regulation seeking to rein in false or inaccurate content has often been quick to criminalize the spread of fake news. As it was noted in the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age (KACEDDA) report, there is insufficient data regarding the individuals, motives and means behind the spread of fake news, possibly hampering regulatory efforts. Across the world, governments seeking to rein in fake news have either targeted the individuals involved in spreading such content with penal sanctions, or the platforms hosting the content with financial liability. Both approaches are wanting for various reasons. For one, they both purely ignore the broader conception of fake news as a culture enabled by several factors. Second, they also pose a threat to the freedom of expression which, in relation to political speech, is vital.
Take for example Kenya’s CMCA, mentioned above. It criminalizes disinformation, identified in the Act as the intentional publication of false, misleading, or fictitious information which that is disguised as authentic. Those found guilty of committing this offence would be subjected to either a fine not exceeding KSh5 million (approximately US$45,000) or to a term of imprisonment not exceeding two years, or to both. More severely, the CMCA also makes it an offence to knowingly publish false information through any media in a manner calculated to cause disorder or to harm the reputation of a person. While the fine for this offence remains the same as the previous one, the potential prison sentence is a term not exceeding ten years. In no way should the intentional spread of false information be condoned. However, such laws may be the subject of abuse by governments seeking to suppress political activism and allowable expression. For example, Mutemi Kiama was arrested over claims that he violated the CMCA when he shared a poster with President Kenyatta’s image, identification number and a statement ostensibly from Kenyans to the rest of the world renouncing him as Kenya’s representative for purposes of seeking financial loans. This occurred in the context of a broader discourse on Kenya’s debt burden and a section of Kenyans’ displeasure with the economic trajectory of the country.
This abuse is also discernible from the fact that evidence suggests the law is selectively applied. In 2020, a Member of Parliament, John Kiarie, posted a Twitter thread where he raised alarm at the number of people the government had in quarantine following the first confirmed COVID case in the country. His posts directly contradicted the Ministry of Health’s official position, indicating that the situation could be much worse than was officially reported. He was neither arrested nor charged, and the Twitter thread is still available online. The existence of a law that limits the freedom of expression in a subjective manner with the risk of stiff financial and penal sanctions, let alone its abuse, is likely to stifle free expression. More so with respect to political discourse which is crucial in campaigns and elections.
Aside from targeting individuals, some governments have sought to shift the burden of regulating fake news to platforms such as social media by imposing liability on them for their users’ behaviour in certain instances. Arguably the most notable example of this is Singapore’s anti-fake news law which that would enable the government to order platforms to take down false statements which that are against the public interest. Where platforms are at risk of incurring liability for user conduct, they are more likely to pre-emptively censor content they deem problematic. The net effect of fake news laws aimed at platforms would therefore be the suppression of protected speech in an unprocedural manner by private entities. At the same time, the core issue of fake news would not be addressed.
These attempts at regulation which focus primarily on disinformation campaigns, while well–intentioned, seem to have missed the mark. Jeff Kosseff, an Assistant Professor at the US Naval Academy recently remarked that the discourse around fake news has not sufficiently focused on the reason behind people’s susceptibility to such content. Instead, attempts at regulating fake news seem to focus on the individuals and platforms involved, and the mechanics through which it is spread. However, to address both the disinformation and the broader culture of misinformation that enables it, one must go beyond such regulation.
A layered approach
Outlawing disinformation alone will not address the spread of fake news; it may in fact cause more harm than good. This does not mean that it should be tolerated in the name of respecting the freedom of expression, particularly in any context that is likely to lead to widespread violence due to long-standing tensions (e.g., deep running economic or ethnic tensions). Any attempts to outlaw certain speech ought to be contextual, measured, and proportionate to the ends sought. However, beyond this, they ought to be supplemented by policy interventions aimed at reforming the culture which that enables disinformation to take root.
Most of these policy interventions would involve education of one form or another. Crucially, governments should engage in both civic education and media literacy campaigns. Empowering the citizenry to both identify accurate sources of information and understand the role of different institutions in a democracy would contribute significantly to stemming the inadvertent spread or consumption of misinformation. This, coupled with collaborative fact-checking initiatives between the government and mainstream media, would enable voters to discern fact from falsehood.
To address both the disinformation and the broader culture of misinformation that enables it, one must go beyond such regulation.
Considering the centrality of social media to everyday news consumption, it would also be prudent to engage these platforms in such fact-checking initiatives. For example in Mexico, the National Electoral Institute (INE) collaborated with social media companies in support of Verificado 2018, a fact-checking initiative that saw the Mexican presidential debates livestreamed on social media from INE headquarters. The collaboration also supported the development of Certeza 2018, a fact-checking system used online which—through a combination of human and machine review—monitored online activity, assessed instances of misinformation, and took action by disseminating the relevant notices. In recognition that fact-checking may occur late after false information is shared, it is also worth mainstream media exploring pre-bunking initiatives. These would involve identifying the common tropes around false narratives and priming audiences to receive them critically. Such efforts have been proposed as solutions to the current spread of misinformation around COVID vaccines. Sander van der Linden likens pre-bunking efforts to inoculation against disinformation and misinformation.
Even where pre-bunking efforts are not adopted, entities involved in the fact-checking initiatives proposed above may collaboratively engage in a debunking campaign by developing counter-messaging once misinformation is disseminated. For this, Indonesia’s example is instructive as noted in the KAF Commission’s report. In Indonesia, the electoral bodies collaborated with civil society and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to monitor social media activity and to spread counter-messaging in instances of misinformation, among other things.
While it is indeed necessary to curb the spread of false or inaccurate content, attempting to do so may pose several risks. Governments, social media platforms, and mainstream media ought to collaborate and make use of a few legal and policy-based initiatives to stem the culture of misinformation. The IEBC fortunately has several examples to draw from on how, as an electoral body, it can coordinate efforts around addressing the culture of misinformation around elections. In all, when seeking to curb the spread of fake news (both deliberate and inadvertent), it is important for governments to consider why their citizens are susceptible to false information as opposed to how and by whom that information is spread.
This is the third of a five-part op-ed series that seeks to explore the use of personal data in campaigns, the spread of misinformation and disinformation, social media censorship, and incitement to violence and hate speech, and the practical measures various stakeholders can adopt to safeguard Kenya’s electoral integrity in the digital age ahead of the 2022 elections. This op-ed series is in partnership with Kofi Annan Foundation and is made possible through the support of the United Nations Democracy Fund.
Little to Show for Kenya’s Ten-Year Military Foray Into Somalia
The peace and safety that were the raison d’être of the Kenya Defence Forces’ incursion into Somalia are nowhere in sight a decade after the first boots marched in.
In early October 2011, the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia was coming to grips with an evolving al-Shabaab that had just conducted the country’s most deadly suicide bombing at the time. On the 4th of October, a truck bomb detonated outside a compound housing several government ministries, killing up to 82 people, mostly students and their parents gathered at the Ministry of Higher Education following up on scholarship opportunities abroad. Despite all the fanfare that had followed al-Shabaab’s exit from the capital city earlier that year in August, this terrorist attack confirmed the group’s continued resistance and its adaptation.
The group, which had reverted to its initial guerrilla tactics, claimed responsibility and warned civilians to avoid government installations, even as the attack was widely condemned. On the same day the truck bomb went off in Somalia’s capital, in Nairobi, the Kenya Defence Forces was finally granted the authority to invade Somalia. Twelve days later, on 14 October 2011, the first Kenyan boots crossed into Somalia in Kenya’s first expeditionary warfare campaign dubbed Operation Linda Nchi — Protect the Country.
The deployment of Kenyan forces to Somalia had been rumoured for a while, but strangely, the invasion was hurried and the communications relating to the incursion ill-prepared. It was announced to Kenyans and the world two days after the fact by the Minister for Internal Security, flanked by his Defence counterpart. Two days later, Kenyan officials belatedly travelled to Mogadishu to synchronize messaging with Somali authorities. In a letter addressed to the Security Council 17 October 2011by Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations on, Kenya termed the invasion a “remedial and preemptive action” for recurrent incursions by al-Shabaab inside Kenyan territory and the abductions of several foreign nationals. Curiously, to the letter dated 17 October was attached the Joint Communiqué that would be issued the following day by the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Minister and Somalia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister. The initial justification of “hot pursuit” of al-Shabaab kidnappers was eventually replaced with self-defence in line with Article 51 of the UN charter. Al-Shabaab had denied responsibility for the abductions at the time.
“When the Kenya government and the people of this country feel that they are safe enough from the al-Shabab menace, we shall pull back.” Gen. Julius Karangi, Chief of General Staff, KDF.
Two weeks after the launch of “Operation Linda Nchi”, General Julius Karangi, then Commander of the KDF, made the following haunting remark, “This campaign is not time-bound”. Ten years later, the end of the incursion, which has since been integrated into the AMISOM mission, is still not in sight. Nor is the peace or safety that Kenya sought. In Somalia, other than control of the major port city of Kismayo and the installation of an administration that is amiable to Kenya in Jubaland, KDF has little to show for its foray into Somalia.
Kenya suffered its greatest military tragedy in 2015 when al-Shabaab attacked El-Adde, a KDF forward operating base in the Gedo region of Somalia. An estimated 170 military personnel were killed in what Prof. Paul Williams of the Elliott School of International Affairs described as “the deadliest attack on peacekeepers in the history of modern peace operations.” And internally, since the invasion, attacks and casualties have multiplied, with the group taking responsibility for hundreds of attacks on Kenyan soil.
Prior to this, the group’s major claim to notoriety outside Somalia was the coordinated bombings targeting crowds watching the 2010 World Cup final in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, that killed 74 people. The group has since killed hundreds of people in Kenya, with high-profile incidents in the capital, Nairobi, including the 2013 siege of Westgate Mall and the 2019 attack on the DusitD2 hotel.
The group’s deadliest atrocity was its 2015 attack on Garissa University in north-eastern Kenya where 147 people were massacred. Al-Shabaab has also not shied away from hard targets and routinely attacks government security installations, including last year’s raid on the Manda Bay Airfield, a military facility near the Somali border. Thus, a sober evaluation of Kenya’s invasion and its aftermath, particularly when juxtaposed against the nation’s stated objectives, highlights a less than satisfactory performance on most counts.
“Not yet Kenyan”
In Kenya, parallel internal security operations were initiated to root out al-Shabaab, an animal whose “head was in Eastleigh and tail in Somalia”. These words by Orwa Ojode, Kenya’s former Assistant Minister of Internal Security, illuminated the official understanding of the relationship between the al-Shabaab threat and Kenya’s own Somali population. This was not much different from the ethnic Somali experience during the Shifta War (1963–1967), an insurgency that begun when the predominantly ethnic Somali population in north-eastern Kenya opposed the post-independence administrative arrangements that denied them the choice of joining Somalia.
Parallel internal security operations were initiated to root out al-Shabaab, an animal whose “head was in Eastleigh and tail in Somalia”.
Although the insurgency officially ended in 1967, collective punishment, discrimination, and political and economic marginalization of ethnic Somali communities in north-eastern Kenya continued to be the de-facto policy in the following decades. In 2014, the government launched its counterterrorism response, Operation Usalama Watch, following major security incidents at the coast and in north-eastern Kenya. The crackdown in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi that is the residential and business hub for the Somali community in the capital, exacerbated historical tensions.
The profiling and arbitrary detentions, harassment, extortion, and even forcible relocation and expulsion, contributed to the alienation and grievances that provide rich fodder for radicalization and recruitment. Rather than attract adherents through ideology, al-Shabaab capitalized on Kenya’s response and sought to identify with the disaffected communities, mainly at the coast and in north-eastern Kenya, in the process morphing from a distant threat that could be contained in Somalia to one that is now no longer easily identifiable.
The Jubaland Initiative
At face value, the intervention was seemingly motivated by national security interests as Kenya shares a long and porous border with Somalia where an active insurgency is raging. But upon closer inspection, previous non-military actions point to an intent to establish a friendlier Somali political order. Following the advent of al-Shabaab in 2007, the security situation in southern Somalia became a major concern to the Kenyan leadership. Kenya set about establishing the “Jubaland Initiative”, a plan to establish “Azania”, a buffer zone comprising three regions of southern Somalia — Gedo, Lower Juba and Middle Juba.
The proposed leader of “Azania” was the late Prof. Muhamad Abdi Gandhi, a former minister in the Transitional National Government of Somalia, who hailed from the region. On the Kenyan side, a clan associate of Prof. Gandhi, Yusuf Haji, was Minister of Defence and a key player in both the initiative and the 2011 invasion. Kenya set about training approximately 3,000 soldiers who would conduct the offensive alongside Kenyan troops, but a little later, Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam Madobe’s Ras Kamboni militia became the preferred ally. Kenyan troops captured the port city of Kismayo from al-Shabaab insurgents in September 2012 and less than a year later, Ahmed Madobe declared himself president of the new interim administration of Jubaland. The Federal Government of Somalia at the time did not recognize this administration, leading to testy relations.
Kenya’s support to Ahmed Madobe also dented relations with Ethiopia and led to regional tensions. In 2019, after Kenya stuck with its ally during disputed Jubaland polls that were not recognized by members of the Somali diplomatic corps, and prevented an Ethiopian military aircraft — rumoured to be ferrying Ethiopian troops to support Federal Government plots in Kismayo to undermine Ahmed Madobe — from landing at Kismayo airport.
In January 2020, fighting broke out between Somali government forces and those of Jubaland after the Jubaland regional security minister, Abdirashid Hassan Abdinur “Janan”, suspected of crimes under international law, escaped from Federal detention and resurfaced in the Kenyan border town of Mandera. After Janan mobilized militias on the Kenyan side of the border, Somalia filed a complaint with IGAD. The assessment team sent to the border by IGAD reported no proven Kenyan role in supporting rebels. However, the Djibouti officials who led the fact-finding mission were challenged by the Somali government, souring relations between the two countries. The unfortunate consequence of the political rivalry and military standoff was the noticeable distraction from the war against al-Shabaab.
The assessment team sent to the border by IGAD reported no proven Kenyan role in supporting rebels.
Somalia’s neighbours have routinely recruited, trained, and backed Somali militia groups whose leaders are then propelled to political leadership positions. Interventions in Somalia’s political and security matters by her neighbours have provided an arena for proxy battles, elevated allied political cronies to the detriment of grassroots leaders, and thrown the nascent federalism structures into disarray. By making allies out of Somalia’s regional leaders, the neighbours are decentering sovereignty, weakening the already fragile state-building efforts.
Some argue that Kenya’s action was pre-emptive and that the insecurity across the border in Somalia caused by the active al-Shabaab insurgency would eventually have spilled into Kenya. However, if the purpose of the operation was to contain al-Shabaab and create a buffer zone, that has failed. A more potent al-Shabaab continues to make regular incursions and has co-opted more communities into its Kenyan front. Assailants of Somali origin initially led al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya; today, the threat has morphed and includes Kenyan nationals from every ethnicity.
Kenya has been further stained by reports of the KDF’s involvement in illegal trade, particularly sugar smuggling and charcoal exports, with the Kenya government reportedly losing millions of shillings in tax revenue due to the illicit sugar that transits through Somalia. Further, Kenya’s aerial bombardment campaign in southern Somalia has been the cause of tensions between the KDF and civilian populations, particularly in Gedo. The bombardments usually follow attacks on Kenyan positions or soldiers and have been read as collective punishment, resulting in civilian casualties and destroying critical telecommunications infrastructure.
The KDF has made a valuable contribution to Somalia’s peace and stability. The ultimate sacrifices by the KDF and the financial cost of the war have been immense and have not been in vain, at least for Somalia. Al-Shabaab has been kept at bay and allowed the state formation process to proceed. However, a major casualty has been the relationship between Somalia and Kenya which, although historically testy, deteriorated to its lowest point in the wake of the 2011 invasion and the Jubaland initiative. In the anarchic period that followed state collapse in 1991, Kenya had posed as a supportive neighbour, hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees as well as multiple reconciliation conferences. It had adopted a hands-off approach, only engaging through IGAD and taking the lead from Ethiopia on political matters. The reconciliation conferences eventually gave birth to the Transitional Federal Government in 2004, which Kenya hosted for another two years.
The 2011 invasion, the implementation of the Jubaland initiative, and the maritime boundary dispute between Somalia and Kenya have changed this. The two countries have engaged in very public diplomatic spats over the Jubaland regional elections in 2019 and the maritime dispute that the International Court of Justice has just decided in favour of Somalia, severing and restoring diplomatic relations several times.
As it became clear that the mission would not end as swiftly as it had begun, the KDF rehatted into AMISOM in 2012 to ease the financial burden. However, the future of AMISOM itself is the subject of ongoing debate, with the AU and the UN both conducting independent assessments and presenting possible options for an international security operation beyond 2021. Among the options recently endorsed by the AU Peace and Security Council is a hybrid mission with the UN that would ostensibly solve the challenge of financial sustainability. The Somali government has wholly rejected this option. Instead, it seeks a reconfigured mission that would be more agile and support the Somali Security Forces, taking on primary security responsibilities.
Of course, those in the Somali national leadership are not passive spectators or victims but also aggressors as they have learnt to use the neighbouring states to prevail in political and security standoffs. Beyond 2021, Somalia envisions a security infrastructure that will depend on Somali security forces, not external armies — a direct challenge to Kenya and its stated plans to only leave Somalia when Kenya feels safe.
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.
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.
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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