London attack a call to reflect on our strategy in Somalia

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Rev Dr Joseph Wandera

On Wednesday, March 22, 2017, a lone driver made a daring attack near Britain’s House of Commons in London. Four people, including a 48-year old policeman, were killed, while 40 others were injured.

London is city of tolerance, a multicultural crowded and dynamic place, qualities that attract many to live there. The attack aimed at tearing such diversity apart and filling people with fear and hate. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

In moments like these, it helps to step back and reflect on the repugnant nature of terror, for Britain has similarly exerted itself in the war on terror over the years, both at home and away.

In October 2011, Kenya embarked on military operations in Somali in order to fight Al-Shabaab. These expeditions have resulted in tragic attacks on Kenyan armed forces, shopping malls, churches, mosques and public vehicles as retaliation to our presence in Somalia, which has dramatically re-shaped Kenya’s geopolitics. A once trusted arbiter, Kenya is now in some quarters perceived as an “aggressor.”

Continuing terror attacks remind us of desperately constrained choices and the multi-fold costs of our interventions, even when the action undertaken is based on strong convictions.
At the moment, doubts abound regarding the security implications of Kenya’s continued military expeditions in Somalia. For this reason alone, we need a shared understanding and ownership of our engagement in Somalia.

The cost of the war to date has rested most heavily on the families of the many young soldiers killed by Al-Shabaab guerrillas. There are also dozens of noncombatant Kenyans who have died as a result of this war in Kenya.

The critical moral question before us now is, which action and understanding can carry us forward away from the tragedy that this war has obviously become?

Shared repentance

Any reflection on the years of Kenya’s campaign in Somalia cannot fail to note the mistakes that have been made, for which we must now engage in a shared repentance, to use the language of Lent. Such repentance should include resolute commitments and precise road maps for the future.

There is also need for more regional and international support for Somalia’s newly elected government, particularly in taking charge of the reconstruction of the country.
Europe and America have adopted the language and the politics of “building walls.” In his rise to power, Donald Trump’s insistence on “America first” was loud and clear.

Indeed, the new American President has posed the question,  Why has the United States been fighting Al-Shabaab for a decade without success? Identity politics, widely pursued by world powers, may impact significantly on the international ownership of the war in Somalia.

Amidst this identity rhetoric, more than 56.8 million people around the world remain displaced. South Sudan is on the verge of a major humanitarian catastrophe. The abnormal in Juba has become the new normal. We are witnessing increasingly stark alternatives as response options to conflict; there is the option of open warfare against open-ended negotiations.

We seem to lack compelling strategies of engagement, containment, and mitigating alternatives to direct military intervention.

There is need for an engagement that renders the trauma and tragedy of war unnecessary. By itself, a critical posture with regard to the war in Somalia is not sufficient.

Avoid criminalising refugees

We must address the underlying weaknesses and moral inconsistencies that have led us to a situation in which our leaders have concluded that there is no alternative to war. For example, we must address factors that fuel cross-border recruitments and radicalisation, which have both led to the rise of various local terrorist groups and vigilantes.

We must also tackle underlying marginalisation issues, for example, by implementing the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report.

We must avoid criminalisation of refugees by their forceful deportation back into Somalia’s conflict zones, which fuels a cycle of violence and counter-violence. There is need to build on structures of faith-based and interfaith groups and local communities in countering violent extremism.

The decision to commit our troops to Somalia cannot be undone, but lessons can and must be learned from that commitment. We must pray that any further risks, consciously undertaken, will lead toward an acceptable resolution of these most urgent considerations.

Writer is an Anglican Priest, a senior lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies, St Paul’s University, and Limuru. He coordinates the Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations in Eastleigh; Email: wandera@spu.ac.ke

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