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Kenya's collective punishment plan draws praise and alarm

Turkana pastoralists gather at the animal market in Lodwar on March 13, 2014. In an effort to tame insecurity in Kenya, Cabinet Secretary of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government Joseph ole Nkaissery issued a decree to implement collective punishment for cattle rustling, inter-clan conflict and other security threats. [Marco Longari/AFP]

By Bosire Boniface
Thursday, January 22, 2015

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Garissa, Kenya —  The Kenyan government's recent decision to impose collective punishment for crimes committed by a few individuals has drawn mixed reactions from leaders and human rights activists.

Cabinet Secretary of Interior and Co-ordination of National Government Joseph ole Nkaissery issued the decree last week when he met with county commissioners and regional police co-ordinators to discuss national security challenges.

The decree, effective immediately, stipulates that the residents of each community will bear financial responsibility for the crimes committed by any member of the group.

"If for instance 100 cattle are stolen from one community, an equal number of cattle would be taken from the [offending] community," Nkaissery told Sabahi, adding that communities know those responsible among them but close ranks in order to protect their own.

"Since communities entertain criminals among them they have to suffer communal consequences together," he said. The communities will not face jail time but will be responsible for collectively compensating harmed parties, he said.

Additionally, the government will not tolerate ethnic clashes, and as such, leaders of feuding clans will be arrested for instances of insecurity in their areas, he said.

County commissioners have been instructed to identify and focus on areas within their jurisdictions that are prone to crime and to crack down on illicit firearms and corruption, he said.

Communities must not shelter criminals

The government is not alone in its responsibility to ensure security, Nkaissery said, adding that all citizens have a duty to participate.

"A crime cannot just happen in a locality without the knowledge of some people," he said. "Thousands of stolen cattle cannot just vanish in thin air. If the community cannot voluntarily give us the information, then they should be ready to suffer the communal consequences."

"The only way to avoid communal punishment is for the citizens to play an active role and co-operate with security agents to pinpoint criminal [elements]," he said.

Local chiefs, who are charge of small administrative areas in each county, will also be held responsible if they do not play a proactive role in ensuring security initiatives are implemented.

"We have placed all government administrators on notice that they will risk arrest and [could] lose their jobs if cases of insecurity are reported in their area of jurisdiction," Nkaissery said.

The directive will help address ongoing insecurity in Kenya, he said.

Baringo Governor Benjamin Cheboi said he welcomes the move if it can solve insecurity in the region, which has suffered periodic outbreaks of violence.

"My county and neighbouring counties of Turkana, Samburu and West Pokot are prone to banditry and ethnic fighting," he told Sabahi, adding that residents of Baringo have engaged in violent clashes and have stolen livestock from each over the years.

"We have tried diplomacy to end the violence but it has not worked," he said. "Let us try a different approach."

Nkaissery met with county senators and governors to get their perspectives on the situation and all agreed to implement communal punishment, Cheboi said.

"If the people in my county are found to have stolen livestock from our neighbours, then we will have to compensate with an equal number of livestock," he said.

Cheboi urged police to investigate the actual number of livestock stolen, however, so that communities are not tempted to exaggerate this number in order to obtain greater compensation.

Learning from past successes

Former north eastern provincial commissioner in charge of security Mohamud Ali Saleh said the communal punishment strategy can work if it is implemented carefully.

Saleh, who served between 2000 and 2003, said he used communal punishment at that time to deter cattle rustlers, inter-clan violence and highway robbers.

"During my time [in office] I put local chiefs and their assistants on notice," he told Sabahi. "They would take responsibility, including losing their jobs and facing prosecution, for any crimes committed within their locality."

In addition, livestock stolen by one clan was to be repaid in double to the aggrieved clan, he said.

Saleh said he encouraged the use of traditional maslah, where the whole community participates in the payment of blood money for any death resulting from clan clashes or cattle raids.

He also implemented an amnesty programme for anyone who surrendered illegal weapons.

"Many illegal firearms were surrendered when the orders came into effect because it was a condition that the community must also surrender the firearm that was used to commit the crime," he said.

Nonetheless, security threats have evolved since then and may now require a new strategy, Saleh said, suggesting local chiefs consider forming an intelligence gathering network.

"The government should fund the chiefs in their effort to gather intelligence," he said.

Decree could violate rights, activists say

On the other hand, some human rights activists say the government is compromising citizen's rights in the name of fighting insecurity.

While the move worked as a deterrent on previous occasions, it was at the expense of human rights, said Womankind Kenya executive director Abdullahi Mohammed Abdi, who also serves as secretary general of the Garissa County Civil Society Network.

"Such communal punishment directives in the past are documented in blood and tears," he told Sabahi. "Security personnel descended on villages and roughed up villagers demanding guns. One such instance led to massacres including the infamous Wagalla massacre."

In the lead up to the massacre, the Ajuran and Degodia clans were involved in prolonged clashes.

"The government demanded that the two clans produce the guns used in the clan fighting and when they failed, security forces were mobilised to get the illegal firearms through force," he said. "While the war ended, it left many more people killed and others maimed."

"The government is treading on dangerous grounds. It should not wish to make enemies with an entire community just because of a handful of the members," he said, adding that such circumstances may even encourage people to support the criminals.

Building trust between police, communities

Garissa Township lawmaker Aden Duale said he encourages communities to work with the government to fight insecurity, but that security cannot be promoted with force.

"It is an undisputed fact that criminals -- be they cattle rustlers, armed robbers and even terrorists -- are found in communities," he told Sabahi. "For the bad elements to be eradicated, communities have to voluntarily provide the government with information and deny the suspects refuge."

If abused, communal punishment could result in the opposite of its intentions, Duale said.

"Communal mistreatment only fuels discontent and non-co-operation from a community," he said, urging the government to chart a different course of action.

Instead, police should work to establish better relationships with the communities they serve by exercising more patience when seeking information from residents, he said.

"It is important for the community and the authorities to cultivate trust with each other first," Duale said. "The communities have to know that their information has to be treated with confidentiality and the government has to know that the information is credible."

Over time, that established trust between the community and police will help tame insecurity, he added.


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