Just over a year ago, in May , 2015, Kenyan Border Patrol police arrested Hussein Ali Abdullahi from his shop in Wajir, northeastern Kenya, and took him to Wajir military camp. His family hasn’t been able to trace him since that day. Omar Yusuf Mohamed’s family is looking for Omar too. Security officers arrested him in Mandera in April, 2015. Omar’s family and friends have gone to countless government offices, police stations, and military camps and to court in unsuccessful attempts to either trace him or compel police to produce him. There has been no response from any government office.
Omar and Hussein are among 34 people a new Human Rights Watch report found to have been forcibly disappeared by Kenya’s security agencies in the last two years amidst the government’s response to undeniable and significant security challenges. Attacks by the armed Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, have killed hundreds of Kenyans in the northeastern region, along the coast, and the capital, Nairobi. Kenyan security forces have escalated operations to respond to attacks. Kenya’s donors – including the US – have been steady allies in the fight to combat Al-Shabaab, providing millions of dollars in assistance to Kenya’s security agencies. But those operations have been marked by serious abuses such as enforced disappearances and torture, particularly of ethnic Somali Kenyans, abuses that put the effectiveness of the US-backed counterterrorism efforts at risk.
The US maintains that Kenya is “a strategic partner” and an “anchor state in East Africa” in counterterrorism efforts, which has led to expanded American support to Kenya’s security sector, despite growing evidence of abusive behavior. The US provides Kenya with over $8 million in anti-terrorism law enforcement aid annually, among the largest such allocations to any sub-Saharan African country. While funding to the police has remained more or less steady over the last three years, funding to the Kenyan military, particularly for training and equipment, increased more than three-fold from 2015 to 2016 and will reach over $120 million this year.
In a speech in 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that “human rights and the rule of law have to be respected in the counterterrorism efforts,” and that “security officials should partner with civil society organizations, especially with those with deep roots in the communities that are scarred by terrorism.” Yet consistent evidence shows that such an approach has yet to be embraced by the Kenyan government. US law and policymakers need to ensure US taxpayer dollars aren’t supporting abusive tactics, including enforced disappearances in Kenya.
Human Rights Watch just released a report based on interviews with over 117 people in the capital, Nairobi and in the northeastern counties of Garissa, Wajir, and Mandera and spoke to victims of arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions and mistreatment, witnesses to arrests and raids and security officials, including military and police officers. Meanwhile, the Kenyan government still fails to acknowledge these cases or to admit that some of those arrested have never been seen again – sometimes for over a year. The stories from people looking for their loved ones are tragic – many told us they went to their local police station, expecting to visit their family member who had been arrested, only to be told no one knew where the person was or which agency had them in custody.
That was the experience of the family of Farah Ibrahim Korio, an ethnic Somali Kenyan, teacher of Islamic education in Wajir, and father of five. He willingly reported to police when called there by a local chief in the end of June last year, never to be seen again. When family members came to look for him, police told them Farah had been taken for interrogations by military police, but now they have no trace of him.
Communities in northeastern Kenya stand trapped by threats on both sides — Al-Shabaab’s violence and the government’s abusive and opaque law enforcement operations. As one man whose brother was arrested by police and hasn’t been seen since April 2015 told us: “My brother was picked up from his home town, where he was born, where he grew up, where he had children. Now no one knows whether he is alive or not….To see the dead body of your family member is painful, but you at least know he is dead. What is more painful is when you don’t know whether he is alive or dead.”
The White House has rightly argued that communities’ trust in law enforcement is critical to countering violent extremism. Kenyan efforts – supported by US money — to root out Al-Shabaab risk being undermined by communities who fear the very security agencies mandated to protect them. Most important, US money should not provide material support to Kenya’s security forces to units or commanders implicated in abuse.
The US needs to make good on the many rhetorical commitments to the importance of human rights protections in counterterrorism operations and encourage Kenya’s leadership to investigate and prosecute abusers in its ranks. Not only are the abuses unlawful, but “disappearing” suspects and instilling fear in communities may undermine US and Kenyan security objectives. Omar, Hussein and Farah – if they are still alive – should be charged with a crime or sent home to their awaiting families.