Civilians in northeastern Kenya targeted by both Al-Shabaab and state
NAIROBI, Kenya - Residents of northeastern Kenya are struggling to cope with persistent targets by both the Al-Shabaab and security forces, a report by The New Humanitarian has revealed, putting them in an unprecedented quagmire on issues to do with loyalty.
The region has been an epicenter of Al-Shabaab attacks against Kenya, leading to deployment of dozens of security officers both from the police and Kenya Defense Forces [KDF], which also mans sections of Jubaland in the neighboring Somalia.
This year alone, reports indicate that over 25 people have been killed in Al-Shabaab attacks within Mandera, Wajir, Garissa and Lamu, in over 20 separate incidents including the January raid at Manda Airfield which hosts the US Marine.
But it's the residents of these regions who have borne the brunt of brutality from both Al-Shabaab and the security forces, with some finding themselves in the middle of uncertainty, given the persecution by the militants and government forces.
For instance, The New Humanitarian reports, Ibrahim Abdi, a National Police Reservist [NPR], was killed by Al-Shabaab militants in an ambush months after his brother was reportedly killed by security forces on claims that he was an Al-Shabaab operative.
“After more than two years of being branded an al-Shabab sympathiser, my husband had no option but to try and do away with that tag,” said his widow, Nurio Dubow. “To do that, he had to join the KPR. There was no other way he was going to survive.”
The NPR, formerly Kenya Police Reservist [KPR] is a contingent of security forces usually picked from among the locals to reinforce security forces in areas perceived to be hostile. Most of them are tasked with fighting banditry and terrorism.
For far too long, ethnic Somalis have been subjected into unprecedented prejudices, with some forced to fight the tag of being branded Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaida linked group which has been fighting to topple fragile UN-backed Somalia government for almost a decade now.
In the middle of the confusion, Kenyan government has struggled to identify those working with Al-Shabaab in Northern Frontier Districts, leading to "unfair" execution, usually done by the elite Ranger Strike Force and the Special Forces stationed along the region.
But in return, the Al-Shabaab have also continued to target locals who cooperate with security agencies. The NPRs and their families are the most affected given that Al-Shabaab has been killing them besides torching their houses for what they term as "betrayal".
“The government thinks the community is supporting al-Shabab,” Otsieno Namwaya, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The New Humanitarian. “But the truth is most people are just scared of the government: some feel frustrated that the government has not exactly supported them.”
Throughout the years, authorities in Kenya have often refused to acknowledge the atrocities, further disfranchising residents of northeastern Kenya. In the process, many families have been left helpless when trying to justify their loyalty to Kenyan government.
The police and army routinely deny they are involved, but the local community “has deplored the violence of the security forces for years”, said Meron Elias, a Horn of Africa researcher at the International Crisis Group.
The experience of Abdi’s widow, Dubow, reflects the pressure. “My husband was killed by al-Shabab; my brother-in-law was killed by the security forces,” she told TNH. “We are caught up between these people. Who will help us? I don’t know where to turn.”
Ahmed Ismail, a member of the Wajir County assembly, also cited the predicament in an interview with The New Humanitarian. “As government security forces tackle the insecurity in the region, there is a need for the security forces to work and follow the law in dealing with the community."
But the tactic doesn't seem to be winning many friends. “Our people are against al-Shabab because they target teachers who educate our children, medics who provide health services to our people,” he added.
The region has remained risky to both the security forces and non-locals due to persistent Al-Shabaab attacks. In February, over 3,000 non-local teachers were withdrawn from the region after a series of Al-Shabaab attacks targeting them.
A confidential report by KDF recently revealed that the Al-Shabaab had crossed over to Kenya and were extorting money from locals as a strategy to reinforce their dwindling financial fortunes. KDF is currently tracing suspects in the region.
There was also another report implicating Somalia's spy agency NISA of unscrupulous deals with Al-Shabaab including leakage of intelligence briefs, but Mogadishu administration dismissed the claims as "baseless innuendos", arguing that NISA operates with extreme professionalism.