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War on extremism calls for collaboration by all actors

By Irungu Houghton | May 18th 2019

It has been half a decade since the concept of countering violent extremism (CVE) was coined by the British government. Slipped into the March 29 Statute Law Miscellaneous Amendments Bill are changes to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2012) to expand the composition and powers of the National Counter Terrorism Centre. Is it time for us to reflect and refresh our anti-terrorism strategies and alliances? The origins of CVE trace back to the September 11 New York bombings and the failure of pure military strategies to reduce the global proliferation of terrorism in the 2000s. Countries like the Netherlands and United Kingdom framed new law enforcement strategies to contain political and religious views that might trigger violence. The concept has gone international over the last five years.

If you overlook the colonial period, the Kenyan seeds of terrorism were sown in the late 1990s. Several Islamic mosques began to practice a form of wahabism that was intolerant of other religions and called for the establishment of caliphate state. Mothers complained to local police stations that their children were becoming violent and disappearing. Their complaints and those of Imams were ignored. Kenya went from five violent attacks between 1970 and 2007 to 47 attacks a year on average.

The attacks spiked with the Westgate Shopping Mall, Mpeketoni and Garissa University among others over 2014 and 2015.

Attempts like Operation Sanitisation Eastleigh applied outdated colonial practices of arbitrary arrests, forceful encampment and deportation from the 1950s. The operation rapidly deteriorated into police abuse, harassment, torture, extortion and ill-treatment. In a single moment, over 4,000 arrests in Eastleigh recreated our modern Kasarani stadium as a terrifying detention centre in April 2014.

Global challenges

Frustrated by the courts release of terror suspects, the police and counter-terrorism units looked for more direct and illegal means. Haki Africa’s study “What do we tell the families?” Chronicles a hundred cases of enforced disappearances, excessive use of force, public killings or deaths in Mombasa police custody between 2012-2016.

The year 2014 was a turning point for Kenya. The establishment of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), holistic national and county action-plans, increased funding and direct dialogues deepened civic-state collaboration. Reduced attacks, human rights abuses and the rising number of Al Shabaab returnees seeking amnesty are some of the fruits of CVE.

The fight against extremist violence faces challenges globally. The use of fear to justify discrimination or divide populations deliberately fuels social intolerance and disdain for those unlike us. In the USA, the decision not to classify right wing and white supremacist violence as extremism or terrorism has damaged the legitimacy of CVE programmes.

In many countries, there are increasing dangers that CVE programmes are being used to selectively create thought-crimes out of legitimate democratic and non-violent dissent. Where this happens, the rule of law becomes a stick for policing one section of society over the other not a framework for us to respect diversity and democracy.

The recent horrific mob killing of OCS Japheth Mukengu in Embu County reminds us that the state does not have the monopoly of violence. Our law enforcement agencies cannot win against rising intolerance and extremist violence alone. To this end, diversifying representation of government agencies in the NCTC is welcome in the March Amendments. To have the NCTC be the reporting and approving centre for all civic organisations is fraught with problems.

Firstly, it duplicates the current mandate of the NGO Coordination Board which currently sits in the Interior Ministry alongside the NCTC. It further complicates the incoming Public Benefits Organisations Act framework.

More fundamentally, having civic organisations reporting to a national intelligence agency compromises the impartiality and independence they need to work with communities torn apart by radicalised individuals who see the Kenyan state as the enemy.

The war against extremist violence requires an eco-system of independent actors working together to protect and promote democratic values. Without a free media, effective community leaders, an unfettered civil society and well-established human rights institutions, we will not be effective in reducing the currency of hatred, violence and rehabilitating the Al Shabaab returnees.

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]

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