Last week, Kenya shut her borders with Tanzania and Somalia as additional measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. The move was occasioned by growing rates of infection in the neighbouring countries and perhaps a realization that the countries may not have been taking adequate steps to contain the spread of infections within their borders.
While the circumstances in Tanzania and Somalia may differ, the upshot is that keeping both borders open was gravely compromising Kenya’s efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.
Communities living along Kenya’s borders with Tanzania and Somalia have deep common interests through trade, tourism, pastoralism, culture, religion and social relationships.
The Kenya-Somalia border has an additional dimension. Violent insurgents have constantly taken advantage of the long, porous Kenya-Somalia border to target communities living near the border. Terrorists have also crossed the border into Kenya where they have staged kidnappings and other criminal atrocities before escaping back into Somalia.
The Kenya-Somalia border has also posed a major threat to regional peace and security due to the influx of illegal arms that fuel insecurity, banditry and cattle rustling in countries in the region. Illegal immigrants crossing through the border also pose a risk in terms of control of COVID-19.
Apart from halting the cross-border transmission of COVID-19, shutting down the border will therefore help limit terrorist incursions especially in the north eastern frontier counties of Wajir, Mandera and Garissa, which have previously borne the brunt of Al Shabaab attacks on security and civilian targets.
It will also check the spillover effects of the raging internecine conflict in Somalia into Kenyan territory. The recent violent confrontation between Somalia security forces and Jubbaland militia in Mandera town is a case in point.
And finally, the closure of the Kenya-Somalia border will also significantly boost prevention and countering violent extremism (PCVE) in northern Kenya.
This is because terrorist insurgents in Somalia are believed to have built an extensive cross border network of terror and extremism targeting youth for radicalization and recruitment to fight in Somalia and carry out attacks within Kenya.
Shutting the border therefore limits Al Shabaab activities while facilitating closer monitoring of the movement of people and goods. It also protects crucial social and physical infrastructure like hospitals, schools, universities, shops, communication masts, and security posts, from attacks by Al Shabaab.
While the existing ban on large public gatherings due to COVID-19 has denied terrorists the opportunity to attack innocent communities, restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 are having adverse socio-economic impacts such as loss of jobs and livelihoods.
This together with curtailment of social, cultural and religious activities is likely to fuel local grievances that extremists may seek to exploit to advance their sinister agenda.
There is therefore urgent need to step up PCVE efforts targeting communities living along the border. It is also important for communities living along the border to complement the work of security agents by increasing vigilance against extremist networks.
The social restrictions due to COVID-19 present challenges to the conduct of PCVE activities on the ground. This calls for creative approaches, for instance, use of social and broadcast media as well as promoting community awareness.
Social media has been identified as a powerful tool for reaching out to vulnerable youth in the fight against extremism. The youth also need to be actively involved in COVID-19 related community initiatives.
Given the disruption to social and economic activities, there is also need to promote awareness of the health and security benefits of closing the border among the affected communities. This will help counter any extremist narratives preying on the problems locals are facing as a result of COVID-19.
With experts predicting a prolonged COVID-19 crisis, it is indeed advisable to craft a new approach to PCVE that is aligned with the existing social reality. Sustainability of the PCVE agenda will be crucial in addressing post-COVID challenges among vulnerable communities.
It is also for the common good and security of the nation, and the global community, that terrorism and violent extremism are defeated using integrated COVID-19 pandemic control measures including enhanced vigilance and community engagement.