Kenya’s upcoming general election will have ramifications beyond its borders – particularly for its most fragile neighbour, Somalia. The two front runner coalitions headed by incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga have both pledged to cement Kenya’s place as the cornerstone of the region. In each manifesto security has been a key platform, ranging from domestic security and anti-corruption and stabilising the border region with Somalia.
Concerns about Kenyan public safety are reasonable given the 2013 Westgate mall attacks and the 2015 Garissa University attacks. Kenya has worked hard to recover its place as a vibrant and secure state.
A fragile neighbour with the terror group Al-Shabaab lurking along its borders is justifiably unsettling. So is the long and protracted military campaign dating back to 2011 and involving a significant Kenyan contingent inside Somalia. Approximately 3,660 Kenyan troops are on deployment in the South of Somalia in an effort to secure the border from Al-Shabaab militants.
But it’s surprising that Somalia has had limited impact on the electoral platforms in the campaigns of the two major coalitions. Indeed, when it comes to Somalia-Kenyan relations, the manifestos for both parties remain vague at best.
The effect of this has been twofold. Firstly, the plans for the future of Kenya’s troops in Somalia are unclear. Without a clear mission mandate or clear plan for withdrawal risk destabilising the fragile security apparatuses in place or being misconstrued as a victory for Al-Shabaab. Secondly, the vagueness of the manifestos has left Somalis living in Kenya in a state of limbo. Threats of Dadaab’s closure means that more than 170,800 people are left without certainty in the upcoming election, risking alienation and possible instability or recruitment by terror groups like Al-Shabaab.
The election presents an opportunity for the Kenyan government to provide some clarity – both for Somalis now living in limbo in the country, as well as for the country’s most fragile neighbour. What’s needed is a careful and cohesive plan.
The refugee question
The government proposed the closure of Dadaab, the largest refugee settlement camp in May 2016. Many saw this as a strategic move on the part of the party because the camp has for a long time been portrayed as fertile recruiting ground for Al-Shabaab.
Political analyst Laura Beck persuasively argues that such a move would demonstrate a strong stance on terrorism mixed with attracting popular support. Polls have shown that around two-thirds of Kenyans support the closure and voluntary repatriation of the refugees.
The closure of Dadaab has in fact been stalled since February following a High Court ruling that it would be unconstitutional and discriminatory against Somalis.
What this means for the people living in the camp is that they have been left vulnerable and their future in Kenya in limbo. This is dangerous for two reasons: it leaves Somalis open to accusations that they are all Al-Shabaab sympathisers, and it opens the door to a large group of people being dissatisfied which in turn opens the possibility of radicalisation.
On top of this, Somalis are notably absent from most discussions about strengthening community, underscoring the ambiguous position they occupy. The lack of clarity makes it difficult to establish, what, if any, plans there are for them going forward.
Both major electoral coalitions say they want to strengthen security along the border with Somalia and against the Al-Shabaab menace. Yet both parties are vague about how to do this. The NASA manifesto notes that the coalition will “develop a framework”. But it’s unclear what security threats can be addressed, or how they’d be managed.
The Jubilee coalition is equally opaque. While cataloguing the government’s achievements to date, what the party can deliver going forward is unclear. Regional integration is a priority within the realms of combating terror and fostering greater trade and knowledge transfer through a proposed East African Political Federation. But how to facilitate these aims isn’t spelt out.
Given the tension in much of the region, and without details about how these plans will be implemented, it seems as though there is no clear plan ahead for addressing Somali-Kenyan border security.
Kenya troop withdrawal
Similarly, it is unclear what the impact of the Kenyan Defence Force withdrawal will be. It has been difficult to gauge the intensity of the fighting and the conditions for troops and insurgents as a result of confusion and at times conflicting reports. How this withdrawal is managed will have significant ramifications for Somalia.
The Jubilee party has insisted the troops will remain until Somalia is stable. But the AMISOM withdrawal which will see the contingent start a gradual withdrawal pencilled in for October 2018 and then a full withdrawal of all the 22,000 AMISOM troops from Somalia scheduled for the end of 2020. Thus it seems Kenya’s troops will withdraw when Somalia stabilises or in 2020, whichever comes first.
On the other hand, if NASA are elected, Odinga has already outlined that he will begin the process of a staggered withdrawal of troops, depending on the situation in Somalia. So, as many analysts have pointed out, it is unclear exactly when either candidate will begin the process of withdrawal.
But any withdrawal needs to be handled with care. If it’s too rushed, Somalia’s limited infrastructure and security apparatuses are likely to struggle. This risks destabilising the region even further. There is also the danger that a withdrawal could be portrayed as a victory for Al-Shabaab victory, possibly fuelling further support.