The merciless killing of more than 140 innocent students at Kenya’s Garissa University College last month by al-Shabab terrorists requires a serious government response — both from Kenya and the United States. Unfortunately, my government has decided to double down on a long-standing counterterrorism strategy that includes human rights abuses and the indiscriminate targeting of the country’s Muslims. This is guaranteed to make the situation worse, not better. As Kenya’s loyal partner, the United States must persuade Nairobi to drop this unsound strategy.
The Kenyan government is cracking down on those who have sought to engage in counter-radicalization efforts simply because they have dared to question its tactics. Without presenting any evidence, Kenya’s top police official recently tried to label my nongovernmental organization, Haki Africa, which documents and challenges human rights abuses perpetrated by Kenyan security forces, as a possible associate of al-Shabab. Our bank account was frozen simply because of the work that we do. Another organization, Muslims for Human Rights, was similarly targeted.
This action was just the latest in an increasingly worrying trend of harassment and intimidation of civil society organizations. Such a heavy-handed approach is more than unjust; it is also ineffective and counterproductive. By alienating an important and sizable Kenyan community, the government is losing a key ally in its fight against violent extremism. If this pattern continues, I fear the security situation in my country can only get worse.
I believe that a large motivating factor for al-Shabab recruits is the actions of the Kenyan National Police, particularly the Anti-Terror Police Unit. This unit’s human rights abuses contribute to a climate of fear so pervasive that people who may have useful information for the police’s counterterrorism operations choose not to come forward for fear that they may become police targets themselves.
Following the attack on Garissa University College, President Obama and other top U.S. officials pledged to provide more assistance to the Kenyan government. They did the same thing after the major attack at the Westgate shopping mall in 2013. But since Westgate, Kenya’s security forces have become increasingly comfortable conducting wide-scale counterterrorism operations rife with human rights abuses. This increases the risk that U.S. assistance, whether for criminal investigations, intelligence sharing or training, could be employed in support of unlawful actions by Kenyan security forces.
What’s needed is a serious reassessment of U.S. security assistance to Kenya, especially in any area where such assistance might lead to more violations. Until the Kenyan government reins in its security forces and stops attempts to intimidate and harass human rights defenders, the United States cannot keep writing blank checks. The United States also must do more to support Kenyan civil society.
In the run-up to Obama’s visit to Kenya in July, the U.S. government has a golden opportunity to press Nairobi to adopt a more inclusive approach to countering terrorism. This can begin with Secretary of State John Kerry’s arrival in the capital Sunday . During his visit, Kerry should press for accountability for human rights violations while making clear that the United States supports a new policy direction, bringing to an end the routine and discriminatory harassment of Muslims. He also should stress the important role that civil society can play in involving ordinary Kenyans in the fight against terrorism.
Alienating a large group of citizens is never an effective strategy. We need to provide our youth with opportunities and hope, not torture and marginalization. Our best weapon against terrorism is justice, human rights and rule of law. To win back any young people vulnerable to the sway of militants, we must show them that we are a country of fairness, unity and integrity. That’s how we will defeat al-Shabab.
When Obama comes to Kenya this summer, I hope to see both governments announce plans to pivot away from failed strategies of militarism and to this agenda of justice, jobs and hope. I also hope that Muslim representatives from Kenyan civil society will be present to see this moment happen.
Hussein Khalid is executive director of Haki Africa.