Kenya’s Struggling Amnesty Experiment: The Policy Challenge of Rehabilitating Former Terrorists

In April 2015, Kenya’s government surprised observers by announcing an amnesty for young Kenyans who had gone to neighboring Somalia to train with the terrorist group, al-Shabaab. In a statement, then-cabinet secretary for the Interior Joseph Nkaissery urged repentant members of the group to return home and report to their county commissioners, where their cases would be considered. Those found to be eligible for amnesty would receive support to help them reintegrate into society.

The timing of the announcement was striking, coming days after Kenya suffered one of its worst terrorist attacks on home soil, when al-Shabaab gunmen killed 148 people—mostly students—at Garissa University.

The amnesty reflected an important shift in the government’s approach to the terrorist threat. Henceforth, hard counterterrorism operations were to be accompanied by activities to reduce the appeal of violent extremism among at-risk groups and—in some cases—work with individuals who were disengaging from al-Shabaab rather than merely eliminating them or jailing them indefinitely. An interagency body, the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCTC), coordinated this new, more nuanced approach. Its National Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism (NSCVE), released in 2016, tasked government departments to work with their counterparts at the county level to devise programs to deradicalize, rehabilitate, and reintegrate so-called returnees who were willing to abandon violent extremism.

Civil society groups, affected communities, and returnees themselves cautiously welcomed the amnesty announcement. While there are no reliable figures on the number of returnees, the government estimated that as many as 1,500 former al-Shabaab members had already surrendered to the authorities by February 2016. Many of the returnees originated from the Coastal counties of Kilifi, Kwale, Lamu, and Mombasa. These young people who went to Somalia to train with the group came to regret their decision and opted to return. Interviews conducted in early 2016 suggested that while returnees had reservations that the offer was made in good faith, a majority were prepared to embrace the amnesty in principle, and more than 80 percent thought it was the best strategy to counter violent extremism. Officials presented to the media a group of returnees who had completed a government-run deradicalization and rehabilitation program. Members of the group were handed reintegration kits containing materials to start a business such as cooking pots, tools, and even motorbikes.

Why the Amnesty Has Stalled

Those who hoped that these one-off media announcements would be the prelude to a fleshed-out set of policies have been disappointed. More than three years later, little is heard about the amnesty. The government maintains that the amnesty remains open, but few details are publicly known about it, and there has been no attempt to measure either its take-up or effectiveness. The prevailing view among civil society groups working on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), religious leaders, host communities, and returnees is that the government has failed to follow through with what could have been an innovative solution to the problem of rehabilitating former violent extremists. Several reasons account for the failure to make a success of the amnesty:

  • Lack of an operational framework. The amnesty was announced in a vacuum and was not followed up with policy or legal frameworks. This led critics to dismiss it as a publicity stunt, a policy in name only. The absence of safety assurances for returnees also made them sitting targets for al-Shabaab reprisals.
  • Poor or incomplete execution . Poverty and unemployment are considered two “push” factors that help explain why young people join groups like al-Shabaab. But, apart from a few exceptions, returnees who took up the amnesty were not provided with much support to improve their livelihoods. Those who did receive assistance were a source of resentment in their home communities, where people asked why their illegal conduct was being rewarded with “gifts” of motorcycles and other goods.
  • Questions around eligibility. The government and partners who worked on the amnesty, such as the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), failed to define the term returnee or explain who it included and excluded. Was the amnesty open to members of domestic armed groups in Kenya or was it merely open to those who had trained with al-Shabaab in Somalia? Uncertainty over the terms of the amnesty created confusion and made it less likely that members of extremist groups would take up the offer.
  • Uncooperative state security forces. The amnesty played out as Kenya’s security forces continued to kill and detain suspected violent extremists and their associates, exposing as an empty promise its core appeal that those who surrendered had nothing to fear. Forces were accused of using the amnesty to flush out al-Shabaab members who subsequently disappeared or were murdered. One returnee told reporters: “There is nothing like amnesty. It’s a trap. What they mean is they send someone to follow you, and you have days to live.”
  • Weak monitoring mechanisms. The amnesty coordinators struggled with the difficult task of separating genuinely repentant returnees from those who took up the amnesty for reasons of expediency. The program lacked strong monitoring mechanisms for returnees, partly because it could not count on the cooperation of host communities who in many cases feared government forces as much as al-Shabaab.

Filling the Policy Gap: County Governments Leading the Way

In the absence of leadership in Nairobi, some of the leaders of Kenya’s devolved system of government have taken the initiative. Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu, and Mombasa counties have all written CVE strategies that dovetail the national plan, and there are incipient efforts to tackle the issue of returnees. In early 2018, 40 returnees to Kilifi county were sent to rehabilitation centers in Mombasa. But this is a new, difficult area of policy, and inevitably mistakes will be made along the way. A 2016 rehabilitation program for returnees in Kwale run by the IOM underlined some of the challenges. While almost 50 people completed the program, critics said it did not sufficiently engage with local NGOs and created dangerous rivalries between returnees who were selected to take part and those who were not. It is also hard to judge the program because detailed results from an internal monitoring and evaluation process have not been made public.

The subnational programs are a modest start; now the national government must provide the legal and policy cover that will increase their chances of success and give people the confidence to get involved in them. In interviews conducted in Nairobi and Mombasa in May, donors and civil society indicated that the government was working on a returnee defector framework that would take a more comprehensive approach to rehabilitating former al-Shabaab recruits. The framework has been long promised, but its development has been shrouded in secrecy, and civil society groups complain they were not consulted. If the government of Kenya wants to implement a successful program, it must abandon its adversarial stance toward civil society.

Ultimately, amnesty and rehabilitation initiatives will remain a hard sell while public faith in Kenya’s security apparatus is low. While Kenya has made progress in tackling its terrorist threat, the problem will not be contained until its security institutions reform, professionalize, and rein in human rights abuses. The public will be wary of cooperating with the authorities on security matters while they continue to live under the threat of indiscriminate attack, harassment, and detention from soldiers and police who accuse them of harboring terrorists. Without the support of communities, al-Shabaab and its domestic affiliates will continue to threaten national security.

Richard Downie is a non-resident senior associate with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Richard Downie