The politics of using refugees as election fodder: The case of Kenya’s government

In Africa, the worldwide trend of demonizing refugees to gain political traction has been most apparent in Kenya. Despite elections still more than a year away, Kenya’s beleaguered government has already been issuing trumped-up claims citing the nation’s large refugee population as an unacceptable security risk.

Tent shelters at Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp. Photo courtesy UK Department for International Development
Tent shelters at Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. Photo courtesy UK Department for International Development/Flickr

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), globally, 1 in every 113 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum, with the total number at over 65 million people. Sub-Saharan Africa alone saw five consecutive years of growth in the number of displaced persons from 2009-2014, with the current total numbering more than 4 million.  The primary reason for the rise in the number of refugees around the world is the eruption or re-igniting of conflicts. Terrorism as a source of conflict increased worldwide by 80% in 2014, with the number of terrorist-related deaths rising from 18,111 in 2013 to a record high of 32,685 in 2014, according to the latest data from the Global Terrorism Index (GTI). While it is true that migrants and refugees in Africa also choose to leave their homes to escape crushing poverty or evade repressive governments, it is those from conflict zones that are targeted by craven and opportunistic politicians looking to foster support for their own election campaigns.

Kenya’s ruling coalition, led by President Uhuru Kenyatta – who until December 2014 was under indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in relation to post-election violence in 2007 – could face significant challenge in elections scheduled for August 2017. A string of deadly protests rocked Kenya in May and June 2016, with demonstrators, led by opposition leader Raila Odinga, calling for an overhaul of the country’s electoral commission, which they claim is secretly supporting the Kenyatta-led status quo. Sensing this groundswell of opposition, officials within Kenya’s current government have tried to appeal to more base elements of the electorate by threatening to close down refugee camps and enact mass deportations of Somali refugees, ironically drawing false connections between them and the terrorist violence they have tried to flee from.

A political strategy born of a failed security approach

The ascendancy of Somali terror group al-Shabaab – al-Qaeda’s affiliate in East Africa – represents Kenya’s most profound security challenge. Since Kenya joined the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in 2011, the 22,000-strong international force propping up the Somali military’s battle against al-Shabaab, Kenya has been increasingly subjected to cross-border attacks and seen an expansion of al-Shabaab recruitment efforts among Kenya’s marginalized Muslim communities. Al-Shabaab regularly claims its attacks are reprisals for Kenya’s participation in AMISOM. One such attack, which occurred in April 2015, was on Garissa University, situated near Dadaab refugee camp close to the Kenya-Somalia border. It was described as the deadliest terrorist-related incident since the 2008 bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi, claiming the lives of 147 Christian students and suffering the pursuit of greater territory for jihad. Garissa was Kenya’s 135th terrorist attack since 2011.

The attack on the university undermined the public’s confidence in the Kenyan government’s ability to protect them and confront terrorism on Kenyan soil. During the 15-hour siege, Kenyan security forces failed to arrive until 11 hours after the terrorists first entered the university because of a delay in flying the General Service Unit’s Recce Squad due to the airplane being held up in Mombasa. At the time of the attack, the plane was carrying Kenya Police Airwing commandant Colonel Rogers Mbithi’s daughter-in-law and her two sons on an unauthorized mission. Furthermore, considering that there had been recent warnings of an imminent attack on educational establishments in the Garissa area, the University was only guarded by a small group of security personnel.

The consequences of this and of similar attacks are widespread. The cost to the economy, especially Kenya’s keystone tourism sector, has been severe as an increasing number of events are cancelled, travel advisories released, and inconvenient security checks carried out. The number of visitors to Kenya dropped by 25% in the first five months of 2015, following a 4.3% drop the year before, as a direct consequence of the attacks.

The effects that these attacks are having in Kenya are not limited to the economy. The threat of insecurity and economic problems are causing a rise in political tensions countrywide. The government and opposition have publically politicized internal security problems, including terrorism, which has assumed an ethnic dimension. With Kenya’s history comprised of negative ethno-political polarization and violence, this pressure has emphasized the political tensions in the country as Kenyatta’s regime introduces hasty reforms targeted at the country’s Muslim minority. The Muslim population has remained politically dominated by Kenya’s non-Muslim central government as the secularization of Kenyan politics is embedded in the constitution, ensuring that political organisations based on an Islamic identity are disbanded or ignored. Public resentment has also emerged towards most politicians in Kenya, based on the opinion that the leaders of the country are either thoroughly corrupt – Kenya ranked 139th out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index – or cannot be relied on to protect the public. The latter has stemmed from Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta’s poor response to the terrorist attacks and is also based on the country’s general insecurity.

In April 2015, in addition to the reforms directed at the country’s minority Muslim population, in an effort to show the public that the Kenyan government is in control of the country’s security, Kenyatta threatened to deport thousands of (predominantly Muslim) Somali refugees. These threats are contributing to the ethnic tensions within Kenya as they are targeting Somalis as Muslims and not as refugees. Furthermore, the government has plans to close one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Dadaab, situated in Garissa County near Garissa University. Dadaab is predominantly comprised of Somali refugees and its closure will affect more than 600,000 people already displaced by famine or war. During a conference held in Nairobi on 11 May 2016 to address the public regarding the scheduled closure of Dadaab, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery stated that the Kenyan government has begun the process of closing down the refugee camp, “for reasons of pressing national security” relating to terrorist and criminal activities. The decision was made by the government on the assertion that refugee camps have become hosting grounds for al-Shabaab. Nkaissery states that the 2013 attack on the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, where a group of al-Shabaab gunmen stormed the shopping centre and murdered 67 people; the 2014 attack in Lamu county in the mainly Christian town of Mpeketoni, where non-Muslim men were targeted and more than 60 people slaughtered; and the 2015 attack on Garissa University, were all orchestrated from Dadaab. In addition to the planned camp closure, Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs was disbanded in May 2016. Established in 2006 alongside the country’s Refugee Act, the department worked with the UNHCR to register and assist refugees in Kenya.

Kenya has threatened to close Dadaab before, both in 2014 and 2015. The most recent statement declaring its planned closure occurred in May 2016, one week after Kenyatta began campaigning for the 2017 elections. As refugees in Kenya have been linked to terrorist attacks by the government, Kenyatta’s regime is aware that fuelling the blame that they have already directed at refugees for the attacks, and subsequently appearing to address the issue through deporting refugees, is a clever way of gaining support from voters. In May 2016, Dr Eng Karanja Kibicho, Kenya’s Interior Ministry Principle Secretary, released a statement addressing the refugee situation stating that the Kenyan government has chosen to put an end to the hosting of refugees after “having taken into consideration its national security interests.” Ben Rawlence, a former researcher with Human Rights Watch in Kenya who has extensively documented the lives of inhabitants of Dadaab, claims that it is common practice in Kenyan politics for governments to choose a community on which to place blame, and then unite everyone else around it. Kenyatta’s regime is demonstrating a misguided security strategy in the hopes that it will appease the public’s insecurities about the government’s ability to protect them from the threat of terrorism. Passing a minority group off as a alarming security risk is a canny way to gain political support from the majority population.

Legal consequences for Kenyatta

From a legal standpoint, if the Kenyan government were to officially close Dadaab, they would be in violation of their Supreme Law, as well as international law. Refugee matters in Kenya are governed by the 2006 Refugees Act, which prohibits the refoulement of refugees and asylum seekers. Similarly, Kenya is a signatory to both the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 33 of the Convention states that no Contracting States can expel or return a refugee to the, “frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened.”

In response to a previous announcement of closure, the UNHCR released a statement at a press briefing in Geneva in April 2015 communicating its apprehension in this regard. The statement explained that the closing of Dadaab – and subsequently, forcing of refugees to return to Somalia – would have humanitarian and logistical implications and would be, “in breach of Kenya’s international obligations.” The decision to close the camp appears to be based on self-interest, and is sure to be confronted with backlash from the international community as a result of its humanitarian consequences. Perhaps Kenyatta’s threats are true, and he is willing to deal with the international backlash, or perhaps he is merely using the threat of closure, based on the public’s fear of terrorism, as a political tool to strengthen his campaign. The true intentions of Kenyatta’s government regarding the closing of Dadaab will be clearer towards the end of 2016, the deadline given for the dissolution of the camp.

In the interim, the future of humanitarian support provided to refugees in Kenya and the continued provision of their asylum lies in the removal of the political weight that they carry. Eliminating the ability of demagogues to use refugees as election fodder to gain political traction for themselves must stem from the global community’s counter-terrorism paradigm shifting from using ‘terrorist’ as a metonym for Muslim, and by holding states accountable to the international law for refugee protection set out by the UNHCR. It is imperative that consequences for states renouncing their humanitarian responsibilities towards displaced people are met by disallowing the accused of operating freely within the global community. This can most easily be done through applying diplomatic and economic pressures. Targeted sanctions and funding education and awareness campaigns to counter hateful rhetoric around refugees are but two examples.

– This paper was co-authored by IOA Research Associate Carla Sterley and ACM Associate Editor Kyle Hiebert. You can reach both at info@inonafrica.com