Kenya’s Shabaab amnesty: ‘loaded gun’?

A Kenyan government amnesty for Shabaab militants who renounce violence was supposed include guarantees for security and support for resettlement—generally in marginal areas, such as Majengo district, a low-income suburb of Nairobi. But both the security and aid have been elusive. A Human Rights Watch report in July alleged that security forces "have forcibly disappeared at least 34 people in the past two years during abusive counterterrorism operations in Nairobi and in northeastern Kenya." There are concerns that resettled ex-militants, receiving little aid and vulnerable to reprisal attacks, are ripe for being recuited again into the Somalia-based Shabaab network that now extends into Kenya.

In Kenya's neglected Muslim communities, radical mosques like Majengo's Muslim Youth Centre, under Ahmed Iman Ali, and the Masjid Musa in Mombasa, led until his death by the charismatic Ibrahim "Rogo" Omar, have inspired hundreds of young Kenyans to go and fight in Somalia. Jihadists also draw on the many grievances of Muslims in Kenya, who lack political and economic power, and, in the coastal region, even access to their traditional lands.

Kenya's intervention in Somalia in 2011, aimed in part at stopping the cross-border raids that were hurting its tourism trade, enraged al-Shabab. There were high-profile attacks on a posh shopping mall in 2013, and at Garissa University in the northeast last year, which together killed a total of more than 215 people. Apart from these "spectaculars," there has been a long, dispiriting campaign of smaller-scale bombings and shootings.

The Kenyan security forces have responded to the al-Shabab threat with dragnets targeting the Kenyan Somali population, ever-constant extra-judicial killings, and promises to close the Dadaab refugee camp, where they claim—on little evidence—attacks are planned. Muslims have also been displaced in vigilante violence. So the surprise announcement of an amnesty in April last year was an entirely new departure. It came just days after the Garissa University attack, which killed 148 people, nearly all young students.

The amnesty program was promoted as part of a "countering violent extremism" strategy, to win over former combatants, and help de-radicalize the communities in which they live. An estimated 1,000 ex-combatants have made their way home since it was anounced.

But the lack of follow-through to assist returnees has made the amnesty "nothing other than a press statement," argued one columnist in Kenya's Standard newspaper. The ongoing killings of returnees and community peace mobilizers in Kwale county is pointed to as evidence of the program's failure. The Interior Ministry denies allegations of any involvement by the security forces in the disappearances of al-Shabab returnees, blaming them instead on jihadists trying to scare young people and prevent fighters surrendering to the government.

But returnees are deeply skeptical. One demobilized militant in Majengo told IRIN news service: "There is nothing like amnesty. It's a trap. What they mean is they send someone to follow you, and you have days to live. Those who went for the amnesty said the government had forgiven them, but that is not the case."

From IRIN, Aug. 31.

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