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Is it time to negotiate with al Shabaab?

by Dr. Nyangasi Oduwo
Monday, April 27, 2015

Students evacuated from Moi University gather together in Garissa good Friday (Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

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To "negotiate" and to "surrender" are two very different words with very different meanings. As reprehensible as this concept may sound in the war on terror, there is real historical precedence for organized states reaching negotiated settlements with terrorists.

The April 2 massacre of 147 people at the Garissa University College brought out the best and worst in Kenyans. Social media was awash with blame-game and grief. Anger was punctuated with depression and exposed in a confusing mix of emotions. President Uhuru Kenyatta the Cord leader Raila Odinga consoled a mourning nation.

That we shall be legitimizing an avowed terror group by negotiations is a moral argument not a strategic one. Governments the world over can present moral arguments as to why they cannot negotiate with terror groups. However, a strategic argument for negotiations is at the top of the totem pole of moral hierarchies. It is the basis of the preservation of the future Kenya. A government has no greater moral obligation than to preserve the life of her citizens.

Does negotiating with terrorists means to surrender? No. it simply means using our heads instead of our hearts to solve an issue. Negotiations do not have to be in the context of a military stand-down, if anything they can be initiated during a military offensive. In any case, if we have struck enough rapport with al Shabaab to be accused by the UN of financial collaboration on the sale of charcoal in Kismayu, we are walking on thin moral ice here. It shouldn’t be too hard to establish negotiation contacts, should it?

If negotiations lead to a cessation of hostilities, it would be a durable, lasting and strategic conclusion to a conflict that has already cost too many Kenyan lives. It would provide Kenya with a much-needed peace, a basis for reduction of military expenditure and increased domestic policing expenditure. It would restore economic activity, education and health provision in former North Eastern and Tana River counties that have been hard hit by violence. We would see a return of one of our largest foreign exchange earners--tourism especially at the Coast.

Greater powers have come to the negotiating table with terror groups. The British government maintained a secret back channel to the Irish Republican Army even after the IRA had launched a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street that nearly killed the entire British Cabinet in 1991. In 1988, the Spanish government sat down with the separatist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (known by its Basque acronym ETA) only six months after the group had killed 21 shoppers in a supermarket bombing. Even the government of Israel -- which is not known to be soft on terrorism -- has strayed from the supposed ban. in 1993, it secretly negotiated the Oslo accords even though the Palestine Liberation Organization continued its terrorist campaign and refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. United States is negotiating with Afghanstan's terror group the Taliban through Qatar for a reasonable end to the 12 years of sustained military action. It would behoove Kenya to come to this conclusion sooner than it took US.

But do these religious zealots want to negotiate? Everyone wants to negotiate; we just haven’t tried nor presented the right combination of arguments to begin negotiation. Part of the reasons for the emergence of terror is the absence of a counterfactual political process to reduce the utility of violence. The goal of negotiations with Al Shabaab would be to provide a roadmap to inclusion in some political process in Somalia.

Hamas, currently the government of Gaza in Palestinian territories, was born in 1988 with the goals to establish an Islamic State in Gaza and the West Bank and to ensure the removal of Israel from Islamic lands. (does that last goal sound familiar). Hamas, loosely translated to mean the “Islamic Resistance Movement”, has been labeled a terror organization by most of the western world. Currently even Israel and the United States are grappling with the reality that a two state solution living side by side is not possible without the inclusion of Hamas. The same applies for Hizbollah of Lebanon, that was listed as a terror organization but currently holds cabinet seats as part of Lebanons legitimate government by elections.

Terror in its most grotesque form always belies a political objective. A survey of 350 terror attacks over the last 10 years by the Global Terror Index identified a local political objective as the primary reason for almost “all” terror incidences. Al Shabaab does have a political objective, it revolves hazily around controlling territory in South Somalia, the economics of the lucrative charcoal trade and sea ports, and clanism (especially minority sub clans like awrtabe, murusade, rahanwayn staving off political dominance). The institution of a political process with Al shabaab will serve to reduce Kenya-Somali diplomatic tensions. It will remove the utility of violence against Kenya for the negotiation period and allow us to provide a broad framework for peace. It will provide opportunity for a political settlement, integration and disarmament of Al Shabaabs 7000-9000 strong elements and generally reduce the suffering of Southern Somali peoples.

However any negotiations framework has to deal with the foreign fighter influence and funding, a possible way to do that would be to push a political wedge between the global terror franchise pursuits and Al Shabaab’s local objectives. A conceptual framework agreement would also have to include territory, southern somali administrative structures, Kenyan border security control, Al Shabaab re-integration frameworks, and a demilitarization schedule for southern Somalia and a disarmament/demobilization program for domestic sleeper terror cells in Kenya - especially of light weapons. An interim cessation of hostilities and plan for public services provision would also be a useful tool in trust building.

These negotiations would also have to be professionally done, a competency many Kenyans have from our history in South Sudan and Somalia peace processes. We would have to exploit their internal cohesion issues and avoid very early concessions while pocketing our most important goal, a cessation of hostilities. Timing may also be key, especially surrounding disarmaments and re-integration, in order not to leave the south vulnerable to human rights abuses by the Somali forces. Redeployment by Kenya should only be paired to an influx of UN/Amisom non-border state peacekeepers to avoid a vacuum that revives hostilities by a race for vacuum occupation. Of course all this would be best done bilaterally, but under the auspices of IGAD and internationally financed. Most experts recommend separation of the political objectives and the personal fate of the terror organizations leaders in two parallel processes. Their personal fate should not include political reward but probably an exemption from prosecutorial processes and low level political participation.

How about our homegrown terrorists you ask? Well the body cannot live without the head. There would be a subsequent choking of financing, training and tactical support for local groups. If a Somalia process is paired with a local state funded de-radicalization, youth employment and integration programs at home, we would see a gradual reduction of terror related activity.

The reality most of Kenya’s administrators don’t want to admit, is that Kenya does not seem to have the capacity for a military solution in Somalia. And this being unconventional asymmetric warfare, it requires capacity that will take our security set-up significant time, if not years, to develop. The lives we are losing make capacity building too far a fetched goal. Either way, we are going to end up in some negotiation process (like the US) with these guys, better sooner rather than later. Someone pick up the phone.

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