Amnesty Is a Positive Counter Terror Move

Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery.
Interior CS Joseph Nkaissery.

I wrote this article in transit to Pereira in the coffee region of Colombia to attend the Fifth Annual South-to-South Cooperation Tour. The Kenyan delegation is joining leaders and experts from around the world to look at rehabilitation and reintegration in post-conflict situations.

Three months ago, Supkem carried out a socioeconomic demographic survey of the Kenyan returnees from Somalia. The number one recommendation of the study calls for stakeholders to invest in programming that addresses the security concerns of the returnees. It also aims to open dialogue and improve relations between the returnees and the government of Kenya.

The study was informed by the initial assessment to determine the number of returnees in Kenya, the methods, and motivations underlying their recruitment, and their needs and views on how to support their successful reintegration into Kenyan society. The report estimated that there are nearly 700 returnees present in Kenya, and recommended a set of steps be taken to foster dialogue between the returnees and the government of Kenya and to address their reintegration needs.

While acknowledging that radicalisation of youth into violent extremism poses the greatest danger to national security, Interior Cabinet Secreatry Joseph Nkaissery’s announcement of an amnesty for the young people who may have joined violent extremist groups signals a beginning of a new counterterrorism approach.

Indeed, international counterterrorism experts now acknowledge that terrorism cannot be defeated through military means alone because the radicalisation that motivates recruits imparts a perverted religious or cultural ideology. This perverted ideology can only be challenged by another ideology and not military means.

Hence, the various counter violent extremism programmes supported by the international community are meant to address a very critical component driving terrorism.

We can understand where Nkaissery is coming from when he announced a government amnesty to young people who may have been recruited into violent extremist ideology. The logic behind this amnesty is to encourage radicalised youth to abandon the extremist groups like al Shabaab, thus reducing the number of foot soldiers who have the operational capabilities to commit terrorist acts.

Nkaissery’s amnesty has been greeted with praise and condemnation in equal measure. There are those, especially a section of Christian clergy, who feel that this amnesty amounts to condoning terrorism and should be rescinded.

For the sake of a sober debate, let us first define ‘amnesty'. English dictionaries define ‘amnesty’ as a general pardon for offences, especially political offences, against a government, often granted before any trial or conviction.

Politically, amnesty is a decision that a group of people will not be punished or that a group of prisoners will be allowed to go free. It is the act of an authority or government by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals. This is where Nkaissery’s amnesty falls.

As part of a truce, amnesty can be granted to opposition forces in civil disputes. Amnesty for illegal aliens means the government will deliberately overlook their illegal entry. There can also be a period of amnesty when people can turn in something that they would otherwise get in trouble for.

Nkaissery’s amnesty to young people who have joined extremist groups and would like to return to normal society should be seen as a strategic and internationally accepted way of solving a protracted conflict. There are many examples where amnesty has been used to settle conflicts amicably.

In Kenya, the Shifta War ended in 1967 after a truce mediated by then Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. Part of the truce was an amnesty for the combatants who had launched a secessionist war against the government. The amnesty extended to government security agents and decision makers who committed serious human rights violations during anti-Shifta operation. This amnesty for government officials and security agents was then guaranteed by law through the Indemnity Act of 1970.

Amnesty also worked well in Uganda when the government extended an unconditional amnesty to members of the Lord’s Resistance Army of the infamous Joseph Kony.

Kony's campaign of terror in northern Uganda was motivated by extremist Christian ideology. Uganda’s Amnesty Act of 2000 encouraged rebels to lay down their arms without fear of prosecution for crimes committed. The promise of amnesty and reintegration played a vital role in motivating fighters to escape or defect from LRA.

Most recently, amnesty was extended by the Federal Government of Somalia to al Shabaab and other insurgent groups. Zakariya Ismail Hersi, al Shabaab’s intelligence chief, surrendered in December 2014 under the amnesty deal.

“I can confirm that as of today I am no longer a member of al Shabab and I have renounced violence as a means of resolving conflict and I will aim to achieve my goals towards peaceful means and through reconciliation and understanding," Hersi said in Mogadishu in January 2015.

Other successful amnesty deals include the Philippines where the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a peace treaty to end decades of war in Mindanao.

In Colombia, where we are benchmarking rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-combatants, an amnesty deal was the groundwork for peace-building between the government and the FARC rebels.

Amnesty for radicalised youth in Kenya should not be seen as condoning terrorism but as a positive step towards finding a lasting solution to a complex and protracted problem. It is international best practice that has worked in even worse situations than Kenya's.

The writer is deputy secretary general of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims.