Investing in, not arresting Kenyan youth

Arbitrary raids and arrests in Nairobi perpetuate insecurity and terrorism.

Muslim youth have been targeted by 'anti-terrorism' campaigns of the Kenyan government, writes Wadongo [EPA]

On May 15, 10 people were killed and 70 injured when two blasts hit a popular market in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. This occurred only a few hours after a massive public outcry over a directive by the Inspector General of police for all window tinting to be removed from vehicles. The matatu (taxi) that had the explosives was not tinted. 

In another of the many recent attacks, two police officers and two other men were killed when a car bomb exploded in a police station in Nairobi in late April. Just days before, more than 3,000 people had been arrested and held in a make-shift camp at a stadium in Nairobi. Human rights groups reported that men, women and children were held in terrible conditions, with women denied sanitary pads and one woman even giving birth while being detained in the stadium.

About a month before, explosive devices in two eateries in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighbourhood killed six people and wounded another 25. As we’ve come to expect, the next morning police rounded up at least 900 people for questioning only to release most the next day without pressing any charges.

And the raids affect all walks of life. These sweeping arrests even caught a high level Somali diplomat, violating long-established norms of diplomatic immunity. Somalia has since recalled its ambassador in Nairobi in protest.

What these stories all demonstrate is that mass arrests and harassment – which seem based primarily on appearance or religion – don’t help flush out the real people behind the terrorist attacks or crimes. If anything, they discourage innocent people from engaging in their communities and fuel distrust and hatred of the police and the government. It is ironic, that this is exactly the type of environment that creates fertile ground for terrorist groups, like Al-Shabaab, to recruit alienated and often unemployed youth.

Al Jazeera Correspondent – Not Yet Kenyan

The “anti-terrorist” campaign that often targets Muslim youth began in Kenya after the bombing of the US Embassy in August 1998 and only intensified after the September 11, 2001 terrorist.

Research has shown this ostracism often serves to push youth towards extremist groups, and according to the 2008 United Nations report, the effectiveness of counter-terrorism initiatives depends largely on the level of cooperation between government forces and local communities. Cooperation, not hostility.

More recently, since Kenyan military invaded Somalia in October 2011, there have been more than 25 terrorism-related attacks, killing hundreds of people and injuring many others. Although it is hard to find the exact number of youth arrested in arbitrary arrests during this period, media reports indicate that police often carry out raids almost every month in Eastleigh, coastal regions and northern Kenya, arresting an average of 50 people during each raid.

During the same period, only two people have been successfully convicted on terrorism related charges, while hundreds of youth who have been arrested are freed for lack of evidence or bribe the police officers. Clearly this approach is not working.

Unfortunately, governments in Africa are increasingly ignoring the real issues that affect youth and drive extremism – unemployment and poverty, which fosters an atmosphere of anger and despair. There are rumours of Kenyan youth lured by US $5,000 to join the Somali-based Al Shabaab group.

With better alternatives, it’s possible to resist that temptation.

According to a recent Institute of Security Studies paper, poverty alone is not driving people to radicalisation, but poor socioeconomic circumstances undoubtedly make individuals more susceptible to it. One of these factors is the unequal opportunity for upward social mobility because of religious, ethnic or political differences.

Across African countries, the difference between the rich and the poor is huge. For example, the difference between the coastal region’s luxury hotels and the poverty of ordinary Kenyans living nearby is striking. We – both individuals and government – need to look for ways to ensure that the benefits of tourism reache beyond the walls of hotels. There are solutions if we think creatively and work together.

For proof, just look to the semi-autonomous state of Puntland in Somalia. It has managed to reduce infiltration of Al Shabaab by investing in agriculture and livestock, food processing, education and technology to provide youth with jobs.

Investing in youth rather than treating them as suspects produces clearly different outcomes. One fights insecurity and terrorism by improving lives and the other fosters suspicion and alienates Kenyan youth. We fundamentally need to change the way we think of our young men: They are potential innovators and job creators, not criminals and terrorists.

Evans Wadongo is a 2014 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow and the Executive Director of Sustainable Development For All in Kenya. Wadongo’s work has brought economic development and renewable energy to rural communities in Kenya and throughout Africa.