National Interest Or Dadaab?


Should Kenya go ahead and close Dadaab, the largest refugee camp, as part of its war on terror?

The answer would lie on whether Dadaab is a cesspit of radicals planning attacks against their host country, as state intelligence claims, or whether the refugees are just victims with no links to terror, as human rights groups claim.

What is certain is that the court ruling against the decision to close the camp, which has 250,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, is a major setback to government plans to deal with insecurity.

The Interior ministry in May last year announced plans to close the 25-year-old camp in November 2016. It then announced an extension following talks with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Human rights groups filed a case, and judge John Mativo agreed with their argument that “The government’s decision specifically targeting Somali refugees is an act of group persecution, illegal, discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.”

What remained unresolved is the question, what next?

The government plans to appeal the ruling, but does the court order mean Kenya should not plan to close the camp at any time in the future? Or can an environment be created in which repatriating the refugees becomes acceptable, like improving basic infrastructure in Somalia?

What is of concern is whether it is true the Westgate terror attack, the Garissa University attack and the Mandera quarry massacre were planned in Dadaab.

Some 67 people were killed and more than 175 wounded in the September 21, 2013, Westgate attack.

On December 2, 2014, at least 36 workers were massacred by gunmen at a quarry in Mandera. All were from Central Kenya and had been targetted for being non-Muslims.

In April 2, 2015, gunmen stormed Garissa University College, killing 148 people, and injuring 79 others.

These three attacks are all allegedly linked to Dadaab, where intelligence says there exist several terror sleeper cells, planning and waiting to launch deadly attacks against innocent Kenyans.

Rights groups argue that these are mere scaremongering tactics to justify closing the camp.

The majority of citizens will never know where the truth lies, but trust the government will take the necessary steps in the best interests of the state.

Hence the questions over whether the court should make a ruling that appears to place the interests of refugees above those of Kenyans.

Students of international relations will argue that the selfish national interests of a country should override those of anything or anyone else, even individual citizens. Kenya does not have a trillion dollar military machine to deploy to root out al Shabaab militants from whichever corner they occupy.

The Kenya Defence Forces entered Somalia in October 2011 in pursuit of al Shabaab militants who had kidnapped several tourists and aid workers from inside Kenya.

Operation Linda Nchi was a joint initiative between the Kenyan military and the Somalia Transitional National Government military to purge the neighbouring country of marauding heavily armed militia who were spreading their puritanical brand of religion and threatening other states as well.

Since then, Kenyans have borne the brunt of many terror attacks. The tourism industry almost collapsed, partly affected by the huge negative international publicity the shootings and bombings received, and has only began to revive in 2016.

Kenyan soldiers have operated in difficult circumstances within Somalia and many have been killed or maimed in attacks by al Shabaab. The January 15, 2016 El Adde attack and the more recent attempt to overrun the camp at Kulbiyow are cases in point. In between there have been incursions into Kenyan territory where police officers and civilians have been targets.

It is every Kenyan's wish that the problem goes away, but the reality is a little more complicated than that.

The court ruling was, as a UN spokesman put it, “positive as it reaffirms the principle of non-refoulement [forced return] of refugees.” But the courts should not hinder the government from fulfilling its mandate of providing security for Kenyans by making a decision with far-reaching security implications without seeking to first understand the consequences and repercussions.