On a visit to one of the North Eastern counties recently, I was in the company of a European colleague, and we planned to visit a few sites in line with our work outside the county headquarters.
I decided it would be a good idea to first consult with the security officers about the safety of us moving around. To start with, we were advised to get a security escort but secondly, we heard that the county is divided into three zones. Zone one around the county headquarters is safer, but zone two and three are no-go zones for foreigners.
Recently, Mandera Governor Ali Roba said half of the North Eastern counties are in the hands of the Al Shabaab terror group. I agree with him. Other stories I heard are even more chilling. A security officer guarding our border told me it is normal for the terror group to announce when they are about to cross the border.
But because this group comes in large numbers, most often, Kenyan officers guarding our borders give way to avoid confrontation. “They come in contingents of 40 or 50 groups,” he said on condition of anonymity. Once inside the Kenyan territory, they gather local villagers in the evenings and give them lectures in order to recruit them.
They also collect taxes and go back before sunrise. The most troubling part is that Al Shabaab now has the audacity to cross into the hinterlands of Kenya. In recent weeks, they have been attacking people about 150 kilometres inside Kenya, showing they have become bolder and more organised.
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This is troubling because it has become very dangerous to travel by road to places like Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa. As we approach the third week of January, most schools in these areas have not opened, either due to fear of insecurity or because the teachers have been withdrawn by the Teachers Service Commission.
The North Eastern part of Kenya is a region where people still feel largely excluded and underserved, and the danger now being posed by terrorists in their midst makes a bad situation worse.
Looking at the poor state of the roads and other critical infrastructure makes it clear that the region is in dire need of development to bring these people at par with the rest of the country.
The insecurity in the region is strange because the government has deployed more security officers there than any in any other part of the country.
But the challenge here, I guess, is that most of these officers are from other parts of the country and hardly speak the local Somali language. The lack of adequate communication has made it difficult for the security agents to collect information and intelligence.
Despite the proximity to Somalia, Ethiopia, our neighbour to the north, has managed to tame the Al Shabaab. Last week, Ethiopian forces arrested some Al Shabaab operatives trying to access Ethiopia from Kenya’s side and handed them over to our security officers.
Inside Ethiopia, I have never heard of terror groups attacking citizens. This begs the question, why is Ethiopia more successful than Kenya in taming the Al Shabaab?
Ethiopia has a different form of political and social organisation. In Kenya, despite devolution, the security institutions are still in the hands of the national government. The local authorities have no control over the security apparatus.
Most of the officers deployed in the region are not native to the region and therefore hardly speak the local language. For them to gather intelligence, they need interpreters, and this raises issues of mistrust.
Besides, the local people do not trust these officers because of past human rights abuses meted on the people in the region. The situation is not different in other pastoralist areas where people fight over water and pasture. The officers have little knowledge of the dynamics and are unable to contain the situation.
To solve the Al Shabaab menace and insecurity in Northern Kenya, the national government needs to restructure how security issues are organised. It would be crucial for the government to hand some aspects of security to the local authorities like they do in Ethiopia.
The county governments need to be tasked with some of these responsibilities because they will be able to safeguard their security better and more efficiently by deploying officers who are native to the region and understand the territory better.
Mr Guleid is the CEO, Frontier Counties Development Council. [email protected]