Jim Stovall in his book The Ultimate Gift said: “If we are not allowed to deal with small problems, we will be destroyed by slightly larger ones. When we come to understand this, we live our lives not avoiding problems, but welcoming them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.”
I was privileged to be one of the civil society representatives who participated in the Town Hall-style engagement with US President Barack Obama at the Young African Leadership Initiative forum at Kenyatta University last Sunday.
My pitch was to emphasize the need for the continued use of soft power in the ongoing war on terror.
When Obama asked me to explain what we are doing at the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims with regard to the spread of violent extremist narrative that feeds and breeds young people who are later recruited into terrorist organisations, I highlighted the significant efforts Supkem has made to address this challenge, which include undertaking civic engagements with spiritual leaders, religious scholars, government, youth and women organizations towards designing and disseminating the counter narrative.
I also acknowledged the partnerships that Supkem has entered into, especially with the government towards institutionalising a stakeholder-led national Counter-Violent Extremism strategy. In all these efforts, I have always maintained that the Muslim community must be constructively engaged if we in Kenya hope to realise any significant success in the war on terror. And it was quite encouraging when Obama agreed with me, saying that the US also realised the importance of soft power.
He pointed out that his administration has acknowledged the need to engage all stakeholders, especially grassroots Muslim communities. This engagement, he said, includes tapping into the knowledge, experiences and persuasion of grassroots people in order to build community resilience against the allure of extremist groups. This approach is what we mean by soft power.
Unlike hard power, which is the ability to coerce through a country's military or economic might, soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. It arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies. Soft power may, therefore, require us to strategically invest more resources in the civilian instruments of national security — diplomacy, strategic communications, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.
It is in view of the foregoing that I used the opportunity to raise the red flag on the current state of education in the North Eastern parts of Kenya where, due to the insecurity occasioned by acts of terrorism, the future of thousands of children is in jeopardy because schools lack the manpower to provide education after qualified teachers from other parts of the country withdrew their services over safety fears.The predominantly Muslim northeastern region of Kenya is staring at a bleak future as thousands of children are out of school because qualified teachers have withdrawn. If no concrete action is taken to remedy the situation, we face the danger of having an entire generation of Muslims from this region turning out illiterate or without a proper education to enable it face the future with confidence. And with such an illiterate and desperate generation, we will have just have succeeded in creating fertile grounds for breeding of future terrorists.
And this is why I recommend some sort of Marshall Plan for this region as part our soft power approach to the war on terrorism. Instead of we Muslim leaders ranting at the government over the lack of teachers, we need to push for a stop-gap policy that would enable us to tap into our skills, knowledge and experiences in order to ensure that quality education continues to be provided to children in this region pending the sorting out of the security challenge.
It is important to remind ourselves that the Marshall Plan, officially known as the European Recovery Program,(ERP) was a 1948 American initiative to aid Europe, in which the United States gave $13 billion (Sh1.33 trillion) in economic support to help rebuild European economies after the end of World War II. The plan, named after then Secretary of State George Marshall, was in operation for four years and was designed to rebuild war-devastated regions, make Europe prosperous again, and prevent the spread of communism.
Hence, our Kenyan Marshall Plan for North Eastern region could focus on ensuring that quality education continues to be provided by creating corridors of tranquility through which children in this region can continue attending school with minimal disruption to their family life. Once we secure the education of children, the plan could then proceed by focusing on civilian instruments of national security, which in this case would involve stopping the spread of violent extremist narrative in the same way the Marshall Plan sought to stop the spread of communism in Europe. And this is only possible through genuine partnerships between the government of Kenya,friends of Kenya including US and the civil society stakeholders.
The writer is the Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.