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Foe to friend: Police in North Eastern take new path in terror war

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Kenya Defence Forces soldiers patrol Tabda in the central sector of Somalia during 'Operation Linda Nchi' on February 20, 2012. Inset: Interior Cabinet Secretary Prof Kithure Kindiki

Photo credit: File

Since 2011, when the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) crossed into Somalia under Linda Inchi Operation, North Eastern region has remained restive due to terror attacks.

The far-flung zone recorded the worst terror incident in April 2015 when al-Shabaab militants stormed Garissa University killing atleast 148 people most being students.

This was the most horrific attack ever to occur on Kenyan soil and the militants said they were retaliating against Kenya’s military incursion in Somalia.

Since then, Kenya has applied several tactics in dealing with the al-Shabaab menace including excessive force, arbitrary arrests, detention without trial and to some extent forced disappearance.

Despite all the efforts, militants have remained a thorn in the flesh forcing the government to seek alternative ways of dealing with the situation.

Security agencies in the region are now being urged to strike a working relationship with locals but the latter remains hesitant.

“Yes we can work with the security agencies on dealing with terrorism but the problem remains mistrust. These officers easily turn around and brand you an al-Shabaab,” said Mr Osman Adow, a resident.

Cases of security agencies being accused of abducting and mistreating locals have been on the rise recently forcing Interior Cabinet Secretary Prof Kithure Kindiki to call for a collaboration between the security and the community.

CS Kindiki’s appeal, unusual from a security chief, is seen as a measure to lure locals into a working relationship with the security officers.

Ties between security teams and locals has been strained as the community accuses police of infringing on their rights.

Mr Mustafa Abdirashid, MCA Iftin and deputy speaker Garissa County Assembly raised a case of abuse of power by the police in Garissa.

Speaking in Lagdera Constituency during the launch of Shanta Abax Sub County, Mr Abdirashid claimed security officers in the county have been harassing locals for no apparent reason.

“We need to sit down with security agencies and agree on a mutual working relationship because what is happening in Garissa at the moment is unacceptable. Our people are arrested, beaten and left in the grazing fields to nurse injuries,” he said.

 Operation Linda Nchi

KDF soldiers on Operation Linda Nchi in Somalia.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

According to the MCA, locals have lost confidence in security agencies.

Mr Hashim Sahal Ali, a member of the community policing in Garissa said they are working on improving a good working relationship with the security agencies.

“Our relationship with the security agencies is facing challenges but we continue having meetings where we resolve every arising issue,” he said.

Locals have accused security agencies of unwarranted arrests and even abductions.

“We have dealt with cases of security agencies being accused of abducting locals and resolved them. At the community policing level, we take our mandate so seriously that we ensure everyoneplays his role accordingly,” he said.

According to Mr Ali, his team was engaging top security officers in Garissa to resolve raised issues. “If our security agencies fail to change their mode of operation then I don’t see them getting the information they need in dealing with terrorism in this area,” he warned.

Two killed in suspected Shabaab attack, bringing number to 13

While in Garissa, Prof Kindiki promised to personally visit all the security camps in the region just to engage officers.

“I am appealing to our security officers serving in this region and dealing with terror incidents to befriend locals so that they (police) can get the necessary information on the common enemy,” he said.

According to CS Kindiki, a mutual relationship between the security agencies and the local community will improve security in the region.

“We need to move from the old ways of doing things where the public does not see the direct connection and relationship with the security agencies,” he said.

Prof Kindiki added; “We want to improve the relationship between the security forces and the residents of Northern Kenya”.

He reiterated that the government has invested heavily in the fight against terror including acquiring modern equipment and the use of intelligence in its operations.

“For us to succeed in this fight, the security forces must work closely with the local people and we are also requesting the support of the political leaders in this fight,” he said.

According to the CS, co-operation and collaboration of all stakeholders will change the story of the region.

“We want to convert this story to an area of success, progress and triumph over terror and violence,” he said.

“We have put in place adequate arrangements to end the terrorism we are experiencing in this part of the country. We acquired the necessary equipment to be used by our officers,” he said.

Even as the CS asked the security agencies to peacefully engage locals, Mr Mohamed Khalif Nunde, chairman Garissa Civil Society Network said there must be a cordial relationship between the security forces and the locals which is currently not the case.

According to Mr Nunde, officers treat locals as part of the problem or sympathisers.

“There is a complete mistrust between the two levels, the locals are in a dilemma. They are between a rock and a hard place since on one hand the terrorists are kidnapping them accusing them of being informers to the security forces and on the other, the security forces are picking them and even executing the suspect instead of allowing prosecution,” he claimed.

Mr Nunde said that the war on terrorism will only end after the security agencies have won the hearts and minds of the locals.

“Security agencies have to start bonding with the locals and prove that this country is ours and that we need to unite against the common enemy,” he said.

Lorry IED attack

A lorry that was damaged by an explosive on January 17, 2023 along the LAPSSET project. Construction works on the project have been suspended due to an increase in terror incidents. 

Photo credit: Manase Otsialo I Nation Media Group

Mr George Musamali, a security consultant said security agencies need to counter the fear among locals through partnerships.

“Terrorism, by its very mention, arouses fear. Police agencies must counter those fears by partnering with communities to help reduce the conditions that foster extremism. They must also be prepared to respond in a systematic way to any aspect of terrorism that can affect a community and communicate that readiness effectively,” he said.

According to Mr Musamali, to win the war against terror, the local community must become an ally in the law.

“With the police no longer the sole guardians of law and order, all members of the community become active allies in the effort to enhance the safety and quality of neighbourhoods. Community-focused policing takes this approach a step further by encompassing all of the tenets of community policing, but with an increased focus on the community, rather than on offenders,” he said.

Once a mutual relationship is cultivated, Mr Musamali said, it will be easy to pick out the offenders from the society.

“Police-community engagement is essential for the identification of persons likely to be involved in terrorist acts. Community engagement is, however, difficult when trust between the police and community is already strained, such as in post-conflict states or emerging democracies in which police have historically functioned as the enforcement arm of the government with no focus on public protection,” he said.

He added, “To create trust, civic education must work hand-in-hand with community engagement. Civic education initiatives are also a good way of intervening with individuals vulnerable to radicalisation. In general, civic education is a core principle supporting good governance, because people cannot hold their governments accountable if they have no idea what those governments should be doing”.

Ms Khadija Ibrahim, peace crusader, said there is a need to strengthen Ccommunity resilience against extremism through strong collaboration between citizens and security officers in the region.

“There is a need to promote the values of cultural diversity, religious freedom and inter-faith harmony in the region to counter cultural, religious and political propaganda that violent extremists take advantage of and use to radicalise youths from the region,” she said.