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Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security
Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition
A man rides in a donkey cart past Kenya policemen as he crosses from Kenya into Somalia at the border town of Mandera, 5 December 2014. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Briefing 114 / Africa

Kenya’s Somali North East: Devolution and Security

Clan politics, poor services, growing corruption and disarray in the security forces are undermining Kenya’s newly formed north-eastern counties, allowing the violently extremist Al-Shabaab movement to infiltrate over the border from Somalia. To build security and capitalise on devolution’s potential, national government and county elites alike must become more pragmatic and inclusive.

I. Overview

Devolved government in Kenya’s newly formed north-eastern counties, designed to address decades of political marginalisation and underdevelopment, has been undermined by dominant clans monopolising power and growing corruption. Violent clan competition and antipathy between elected county elites and the remaining national administrative structures have allowed the violently extremist Al-Shabaab movement to expand and operate with relative impunity across large areas of the North East. Its attacks exposed security-service disarray and caused a sharp reversal of already stretched state services in this vast and poor region that shares a porous 680km border with Somalia. To end the violence and capitalise on devolution’s potential, county elites must be more inclusive of minorities, cooperate across local boundaries for inter-county peace and recognise the continued role for neutral national institutions. National government should recognise where pragmatism can trump convention and back new security approaches that combine national and county responses.

Rampant criminality, inter-clan animosities and small-arms proliferation stretch policing and render highly insecure the sprawling refugee camps that host more than 350,000 Somali nationals fleeing the conflict in their country. This is compounded by Al-Shabaab infiltration, radicalisation and recruitment – especially in a borderland region where the inhabitants’ national identity is historically contested and suspect. As relations between the refugees and their Kenyan Somali host communities fray, demands for the camps’ closure are becoming more strident.

After lengthy bureaucratic infighting and knee-jerk initiatives that smacked of political score-settling and risked alienating many Kenyan Somalis, a new security approach is finally in place, led by senior national security officers who vitally have local roots (ie, Somali heritage) but are directly accountable to the national executive. This has temporarily helped bridge a breakdown in cooperation, especially in local intelligence-sharing, between county commissioners appointed by the president and newly-elected county governments that resented their security oversight. Whether this approach is applicable to other insecure areas with historically-strained relations with the centre is yet to be seen.

A purely security-focused approach, however innovative, is in any event not a panacea. The new devolved county governments must share responsibility for chronic insecurity instead of continually deflecting blame to the centre. Most importantly, the inclination, with some notable exceptions, for a winner-takes-all approach to county politics will only generate further insecurity, as will the deepening problem of graft. With the second “devolved” elections in 2017 promising to be even more competitive than those in 2013, consensus on minimum provisions for cross-clan inclusion is needed now.

New county elites underutilise existing peace-making structures (“local peace committees”, community-based organisations and clerics) and prefer “county-owned” forums dependent on – often compromised – clan elders, while keeping the national government and its good offices at a distance and ignoring or sidelining women and youth networks. The government should establish an independent commission of national and local experts to offer solutions on the contentious issues at the core of the inter-clan frictions, such as borders, land, wells and justice and restitution for losses.

Finally, the national and county governments urgently need to reestablish social services (especially health and education) at the same time as they strengthen the security sector. Education can help reduce poverty, promote integration among ethnic and religious groups and fight extremism; and, at least in the medium term, more resources should be allocated to lift its standards. Donors, multilateral and bilateral alike, have clear incentives to give developmental aid that supports successful devolution and enhances Kenyan and regional security.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 November 2015 

A group of Rohingya refugee people walk towards Bangladesh after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Teknaf, Bangladesh, 1 September 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS
Statement / Asia

The Rakhine State Danger to Myanmar's Transition

The violence since 25 August that has driven 270,000 Rohingya civilians over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh is not just causing a humanitarian catastrophe. It is also driving up the risks that the country’s five-year-old transition from military rule will stumble, that radicalisation will deepen on all sides, and that regional stability will be weakened.

Since 2012, the International Crisis Group repeatedly has warned that, if left unresolved, Rakhine State’s volatile dynamics pose a major risk to Myanmar’s transition. If dealt with primarily through a heavy-handed, indiscriminate security response, rather than in the framework of a political strategy, the dangers were clearly set to become far worse. The events of recent weeks are not just causing enormous suffering to civilians, but bring Myanmar precipitously close to just such an unraveling of much that has been achieved since the end of military rule.

The 25 August attacks on Myanmar security forces by the militant group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which the government has designated a terrorist group, undoubtedly were intended as a provocation. Neither these attacks nor the reported killing of non-Rohingya civilians, at least some of which are undoubtedly the work of the group, are excusable, no matter what political agenda they claim to represent. Any government has the responsibility to defend itself and the people living in the country. At the same time, such government security responses need to be proportionate and not target civilians.

Nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It is extremely difficult to verify the numerous reports of atrocities amid the confusion and chaos, and very limited access for media and humanitarian agencies. Yet even if specific allegations cannot be proven, the scale of the crisis is clear. The 270,000 Rohingya who have fled in the last two weeks to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border and across are telling, both in terms of their numbers and the accounts they bring. The vast majority of these people, mostly women and children, are unlikely to be militants. Along with some 87,500 who fled a previous upsurge in violence in October 2016, nearly half of Myanmar’s estimated one million Rohingya may now have been forced from their homes.

It may indeed be difficult for the government to distinguish between ARSA members and other Rohingya. The events of last year and recent weeks, particularly the heavy handed military response in the wake of the October 2016 and August 2017 attacks, appear to have promoted a sense among Rohingya that a general uprising is underway. But operationally challenging as this is, it cannot be an excuse for military action against the general population. By doing so, the military will not quell the crisis, but rather play straight into the hands of ARSA by increasing the sense of grievance and hopelessness.

It is similarly vital to treat with utmost caution claims that the current crisis is being fuelled by militants with transnational jihadist aims. Rohingya communities have not typically been radicalised in this fashion and there are no indications that ARSA has been pursuing goals congruent with those of global jihadist outfits. While there may be domestic political imperatives or gains to be had for politicians in the region to make these claims, doing so is deeply dangerous.

If the Myanmar government chooses to continue a massive military response against the general population, even if parts of this population may be sympathetic to ARSA, or publicly to treat the violence as the work of jihadists, it risks creating conditions for the entrenchment or rise of those very same dynamics. An alienated, desperate and dispossessed population that is shunned by the country it claims as its home and by neighbours is ripe for exploitation by such groups and may believe it has little to lose if it were to turn to violence. The risks to those who live in Myanmar, the country’s transition and regional stability are considerable.

The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state.

There is no military solution to the crisis in Rakhine state. The Myanmar government will find no success, only long term violence and crisis, if it uses the presence of militants and the growth of some sympathy for them, as an excuse to address in an extreme manner the long-standing challenges of Rakhine state. The path to stability lies in dealing head on with the fears, claims and desires of all groups in the state, Rakhine, Rohingya and other minorities. This political path is difficult and will require compromises many may find distasteful. But taking this road is the only way to reduce the risks of serious violence, more displacement and greater human misery.