Nairobi’s widespread crackdown after the Garissa university massacre sparks concern that it will cause even more suffering.
Kenya’s initial response to a terrorist attack that killed nearly 150 people on April 2 was widely criticized as being devastatingly slow. Now, however, Nairobi is racing to prevent the next attack with a slate of draconian measures that humanitarian groups and the United Nations warn could actually put more people in danger.
Despite embracing stepped-up counterterrorism measures after al-Shabab gunmen killed 67 people at Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013, the Kenyan government took more than 10 hours to send in special forces to take out the terrorists mowing down innocents at Garissa University College this month. Kenyans were further angered this week after learning that the plane meant to transport the response team was delayed because a police chief had used it to transport his family back from vacation.
Amid this public outcry, officials in Nairobi have been quick to launch a preemptive crackdown, with plans to dig a 435-mile ditch on the border with Somalia and all but shutter the money-transfer businesses used by Somalis and Kenyans alike. Critics worry the measures will be ineffective, if not downright counterproductive.
“The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa,” Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto said Saturday, April 11.
The government has set about trying to physically change the country’s border with Somalia, starting by digging a trench that will run for hundreds of miles. Construction began this week on what officials say will be a new system of barriers including fences, ditches, and patrol roads.
In a ham-handed attempt to cut off money flowing to al-Shabab, the government closed 13 remittance companies on April 8. The government has revoked licenses and froze accounts until money transmitters can prove that they are not financing terrorism. The Kenyan government’s decision to shutter the companies not only cuts off the flow of financial support into Kenya from abroad, but also makes it harder for Somalis in Kenya to send money to family members back home.
The move comes at a time when it has become harder to send money from the United States to Somalia, after many money transmitters in the United States lost their bank accounts.
International aid organizations that work in Somalia, including Adeso, CARE, Mercy Corps, and Oxfam, took the unusual step of criticizing the Kenyan government’s decision in a joint statement.
“Just three years on from a devastating famine that killed 258,000, Somalia remains in the grips of crisis and one out of every three Somali families say that without these remittance flows they would not be able to pay for food, school or basic healthcare,” the aid organizations said in a statement.
Ed Pomfret, who coordinates Oxfam’s Somalia programs from Nairobi, said many NGOs themselves rely on the money-services companies to send money to partner organizations in Somalia.
“They should go one by one through each of these companies — it’s fine to investigate, but don’t just blanket close them when it’s a lifeline for so many people,” Pomfret said on the phone from Nairobi.
Another plan that drew immediate rebuke came a few days later. Nairobi wants to shutter Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, and send its 350,000 inhabitants back to Somalia. UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, urged the government to reconsider, saying that repatriating that many people would be impossible and could cause “extreme” humanitarian consequences.
“UNHCR stands ready to work closely with the government of Kenya to strengthen law enforcement at Dadaab and support other measures to protect refugees and Kenyans alike against possible intrusion by armed actors from across the border,” UNHCR spokesperson Karin de Gruijl said Tuesday.
The idea also drew criticism from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors Without Borders.
“Instead of scapegoating refugees, Kenya is legally obliged to protect them until it is safe for them to return, and should identify and prosecute those responsible for the killings in Garissa,” Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said, according to the Guardian.
All the frantic measures meant to insulate Kenya from Somali infection may be in vain if Kenyans are the ones doing the shooting. Authorities have identified at least four of the suspects as Kenyans. President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged after the massacre that the problem stems from inside Kenya, not just from Somalia.
“Our task of countering terrorism has been made all the more difficult by the fact that the planners and financiers of this brutality are deeply embedded in our communities,” Kenyatta said in his national address after the attack.
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