Use Soft Power To Counter Terrorism

Red cross personnel help family members of the 36 people killed in Mandera after viewing the bodies at the city mortuary. Photo/File
Red cross personnel help family members of the 36 people killed in Mandera after viewing the bodies at the city mortuary. Photo/File

The East and Horn Africa is arguably facing the biggest threat to political stability since the collapse of colonialism.

The threat mainly comes from proliferation of violent extremist groups.

These groups, which strike at the heart of African cohesion and nation-building include local groups such as Mungiki, Chingororo, Mombasa Republic Council and international networks led al-Qaeda in the Maghreb; Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria; al-Shabaab in Somalia; Mulathameen Brigade in Algeria; Ansar al-Diin in Mali; Christian Anti-Balaka in the Central African Republic and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia.

Following years of stone-walling and burying heads in the sand, Kenyans have finally acknowledged what they should have acknowledged more than a decade ago —that radicalization to violent extremism is the main ingredient of terrorism, and that military weapons and combat tactics by state security forces alone cannot yield a solution.

For the past couple of months, the government of Kenya through its top security, administrative and legal machinery has been burning the midnight oil in an effort to find the appropriate response to the spread of violent extremist narrative that forms the nucleus of terrorism.

Working under aegis of the National Counter Terrorism Centre, the government has in the past two months held various stakeholder meetings to find solutions to the push and pull factors that lead young people into violent extremist groups. The climax of these engagements was the regional meeting to counter violent extremism held in Nairobi early July, where delegates from over 30 countries in Africa met to explore avenues that can be employed to address radicalization to violent extremism and other vices associated with terrorism.

Time will tell if these conferences yield any tangible solutions, but for a government that had hitherto shut its doors to the public and believed in only military responses to the complex problem that terrorism is, initiating public dialogue and seeking alternative solutions to this problem is a remarkable paradigm shift that should be lauded and encouraged.

By going to institutions of higher learning, for example, and engaging experts; and by inviting religious, youth and women opinion leaders, and other stakeholders to share experiences and suggest solutions, the government has finally realized that terrorism is a much more complex problem than a strictly security challenge.

In this regard, the government should be encouraged to open up to more public engagement by building more partnerships as it slowly and steadily shifts from hard power to soft power as far as the war on terrorism is concerned.

Harvard professor Joseph Nye coined the term "soft power" in the late 1980s. It is now used frequently by political leaders, editorial writers, and academics around the world. But what is soft power?

Soft power lies in the ability to attract and persuade. Whereas hard power—the ability to coerce—grows out of a country's military or economic might, soft power arises from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals, and policies.

In 2007, for example, then U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates spoke of the need to enhance America’s soft power by "a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security—diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development."

Soft power is, therefore, a concept developed to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of changing behaviour. Hard power, however, remains crucial in a world of states trying to guard their independence and of non-state groups willing to turn to violence.

Hence, with regard to non-state groups like proscribed terror organizations whose campaign of violence poses a serious threat to Kenya’s national security, hard power remains the core of the government’s national security strategy.

But according to Prof Nye, major miscalculations often arise when a government becomes fixated with hard power, especially when conservative military-oriented officers are given unfettered powers to formulate and execute national security policies. Such policies focus too heavily on using military power to respond to all manner of security challenges, and they pay too little heed to soft power.

In view of the current security situation in Kenya, it is now clear that a mix of hard and soft power is needed to deal with terrorism effectively. Soft power in the form of dialogue and constructive engagement against violent extremism will certainly help prevent terrorists from recruiting supporters from among the population. Soft power will help us persuade those who have already been recruited to renounce violence, abandon their evil ways and return to civilised society. And this is why the recent government amnesty extended to ‘returnees’ by Interior minister Joseph Nkaissery should be handled with utmost good faith.

According to Sarah Sewall, a leading US diplomat- disrupting terrorism demands a ‘whole-of-society’ approach. Such strategy must seek to address tangible human needs, empower communities to physically, psychologically, and intellectually to resist the falsehoods.

In using its soft power, the government should be genuine and must be seen to be honest in its engagement with the civil society and communities. At a minimum, governments should not create grievances by tolerating incompetence, corruption, or the abuse of human rights.

I have said many times in this forum that devolved structures now being managed by county governments can be enhanced to play an important role in enhancing national security. Lessons learnt from the Garissa University and Mandera bus attacks should by now have proved beyond any shadow of doubt that when appropriately empowered, devolved governments can play a very critical role in matters national security.

The writer is the Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (SUPKEM).