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Kenya must change tack to keep Shabaab at bay

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Kenya Defence Forces troops under Amisom on patrol in Afmadow, Somalia, in 2015. FILE PHOTO | NMG

The insecurity in the north eastern part of Kenya where Al Shabaab has staged deadly attacks requires concerted efforts to rein in the militants.

Last week, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned American air carriers to “exercise caution” when flying over Kenyan airspace, citing possible attacks by extremists.

The area covered by the warning cuts through the North Eastern Kenya. The Somali border is to the east of the area of caution. Americans consider it a war zone, as the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) is fighting the Al Shabaab there. The KDF also operates in the zone.

Already, the education sector in the north has been hurt following the withdrawal of more than 2,000 teachers by the government over safety concerns.

While Al Shabaab has used the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia where they are stationed under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) as an excuse to launch attacks in the country, it is evident that it could have designs to take control of the expansive Northern Kenya region.

According to think tanks like the International Crisis Group, disrupting social services such as education, in the region risks further stunting the region’s development.

Moreover, it could deepen the sense of marginalisation by the State that many residents feel in northern Kenyan thus hindering Kenya’s efforts to curb Islamist militancy by winning "the hearts and minds" of locals and potentially even fuelling Al-Shabaab’s recruitment.

A former Horn of Africa researcher, Abdullahi Abdile, argues that the status quo is unsustainable.

Leaving the region’s economy to drift further downward and its youngsters without proper schooling would create tremendous human costs, he observes.

Moreover, he posits that while the appeal of militancy defies generic description and varies from individual to individual, denying educational opportunities to the youth in an already poor and under-served area cannot help in the battle against the extremists.

"As it works to restore security and the services that have been lost in the north east, the Kenyan government should pay particular attention to reversing Al-Shabaab’s campaign to hollow out educational institutions, writes Abdile noting that failure to do so could come at a huge cost to the rest of the country.

According to governance, security sector and political science experts, due to the complexity of the situation, any solution to the Al Shabaab menace must get the support of political leaders both in Kenya and Somalia.

However, at this time, the leadership in both countries appear to be working at cross purposes, which means the prospect of wiping out the militia and returning normalcy to the war-torn country will remain a pipe dream for the foreseeable future. The latest row between Nairobi and Mogadishu over Kenya's alleged interference with the latter's internal affairs does not help the situation.

Somalia had threatened to report Kenya to the UN but Nairobi strongly rejects the accusations.

“Kenya rejects the unwarranted and invalid allegations made by the Federal Government of Somalia and takes great exception to the fabricated indictments of interfering in Somalia’s internal affairs," said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a note.

On Monday, there were reported clashes between the Somalia National Army and the Jubaland security forces near the Mandera border.

Somali President Mohammed Farmajo has been at odds with Kenya's support for Jubaland President Ahmed Madobe and tensions between the two leaders worsened after the Somali National Army deployed 700 troops in the Gedo region.

Despite calls by the US for dialogue to resolve the row between the two leaders, the troops remain there. Kenya has been on the side of Madobe whose authority is seen as providing a buffer to the chaos in Somalia.

Opinion is, however, divided on the viability of this strategy with Al Shabaab attacks continuing.

Kenya and Somalia are also at loggerheads over a disputed 62,000-square-mile oil and gas-rich area in the Indian Ocean.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is set to begin hearing the matter in June. The mistrust between the two countries was the reason Nairobi became alarmed by the secret visit by 11 MPs to Mogadishu where they held talks with Farmajo.

For long, Kenya adopted a posture of non-interference in the internal affairs of its neighbours, making it the destination of hoice for refugees fleeing conflict.

Kenya was also the base of many peace deals that ended wars in countries such as Somalia, Uganda and Sudan.

This investment cannot be in vain. It may, however, require that Kenya change tack if it is to succeed in securing its territory.

This would include working with other countries to resolve the political dispute between Farmajo and Madobe and reduce or stop the attacks.