Former Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery
On April 14 2015, General Joseph Nkaissery, the then Minister for Interior made an announcement that threatened to tear the country’s top security organs right through the middle.
After years in the bush that were punctuated by periods of unwarranted bloodletting, some 300 men and women with paramilitary training and a cultivated penchant for war wanted to come back home with nothing but the guns on their shoulders to try and pick up the pieces of lives they had abandoned in their quest for jihad.
A series of events, including the brutal assassination of a friend of the state forced the government’s hand, and on that hot, sunny Tuesday in what just missed the threshold for a roadside declaration, the General announced an amnesty to all men and women who had crossed the Kenyan borders to train with terror group Al Shabaab in Somalia.
But this didn’t go down well. One group, led by a high ranking public servant in the Interior Ministry was against any form of leniency towards the returnees.
Army generals, who had gone to battle with some of these boys wanted nothing to do with the amnesty. The thought of having these boys back home was upsetting. Hundreds of Kenyans had died as a result of their direct actions. At the very least, the public servant insisted, the boys had to at least confess to their sins.
The other group respectfully acknowledged these fears but backed the decision by Nkaissery. Led by a long-term Provincial Commissioner as well as the then intelligence chiefs, this group argued that any form of violence against the returnees would spiral into something unmanageable that would play out in more violence. They said the war on terror had to move away from the battlefields and into the communities that supplied the terror group with willing participants. To win, reason had to triumph over brawn.
With the uneasy calm that followed Nkaissery’s announcement, many more came back. But life for them and those who knew them was never the same. The toddlers the young men and women had left behind had grown into teenagers who learnt about their parents from hushed conversations.
But voices of these Al Shabaab returnees continue to sip out, upsetting both former comrades and law enforcement who would rather pretend that they do not exist. The truth, however, is that hundreds roam the country, running from the shadows of police and remnants of the terror group, carrying with them memories of a troubling period. Memories and experiences that can be tapped into by remaining Al Shabaab hardliners to devastating effect.
The discussions at the village baraza somewhere in Kwale were getting to Mohamed Bakari Mazuri’s nerves.
Increasingly, speaker after speaker was talking about something that was close to his heart. A chief and an NGO- type were busy telling the villagers to look out for danger signs that could mean their sons or daughters had joined Al Shabaab, the blood thirsty militia that had declared war on Kenya and its citizens.
“They might start to keep beards or to lock themselves in rooms. They might even become intolerant to any other kind of religion apart from what they think is holy and only listen to specific preachers,” the chief said. “If you see any of these signs, come and report.”
Bakari, himself a returnee, exhibited none of these stereotypes. He didn’t spot an unkempt beard. He wasn’t locking himself in a room and listening to radicalised preaching all day. He wasn’t even remotely withdrawn. In fact, Bakari was the life of any gathering he was in.
So after the baraza, Bakari approached the chief, pulled him aside and said:
“I want to tell you a few things in confidence and colleagues know I am talking to you. If something happens to me, they will come for you and you will not like it.”
He said he was a returnee. And there were 300 others just like him living dangerously on the fringes of society.
“They are tired and want to come home,” he said. “If you can guarantee us our safety then we will come out in the open.”
With his message delivered, Bakari faded back into the crowd of locals he had emerged from.
Up until that point, the return of the returnees had had devastating consequences. Daughters were disowned by their fathers. Sons were frog marched to police stations by sobbing mothers who knew deep in their hearts that the time with their wanted sons was limited and that hiding them without the knowledge of authorities would put whole families in danger.
Those taken to police were registered, to remain within earshot distance of law enforcement while walking around with targets on their backs.
The majority however survived outside the boundaries of being disowned or outed to the police. They retreated into their cells in different parts of the country with nothing but the guns on their shoulders and their experiences of guerrilla warfare.
After coming back from the brutal war, they never really found forgiveness from the state. Neither were they free from suspicion from other returnees with whom they served in Somalia. A compromise became necessary.
Former PC Joseph Kaguthi.
Trial and Terror
The compromise came in the form of a proposal by Bakari, the charming man who somehow got the ear of those in charge of security within his county, Kwale.
When bakari next made contact with the chief, the state was ready for him. The state was ready to grant them amnesty on condition that they fully surrender and know that they would be under surveillance for the rest of their lives.
He had no problem. He left the meeting location somewhere in Ukunda Town and took the news back to his people. He told them the government was ready to give them three things: Amnesty, facilitation and integration.
“The returnees agreed to first register 60 of their members with government as a pilot. They wanted to see how this would go,” a source who was part of setting up the government amnesty programme said.
The 60 were the less militant ones. Men and women who’d been in Somalia for less than a year. Their experience in combat and participation in terrorism paled in significance to what others had done.
After a series of consultative meetings between different county commanders from Tana River, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Lamu, the list was pushed further up to the Ministry of Interior where insiders say it was received by the then minister Joseph Nkaissery in Nairobi.
But there was a problem. No one in government knew what would happen after the 60 men and women presented themselves to the state. It didn’t seem like there was a plan in place.
“Some of those in charge of the amnesty did not understand the complexity of the problem properly,” Joseph Kaguthi, the former chair of the Nyumba Kumi Initiative and one of those entrusted by government to midwife the program said.
There was no history of such a project and, like many other government projects, the Amnesty Programme remained in place only on one side of a piece of paper. The other side contained names of 60 individuals who had given up one life for the hopeful pursuit of another. Another source says after the surrender of the initial 60, there was no urgency in the program.
Bakari, the exuberant returnee, was on the other hand becoming anxious. He had held his end of the bargain by brokering the safe surrender of his people to the state. But safety was not all they wanted. They wanted more. And in the absence of it, murmurs of a betrayal started going around and people started pointing their noses towards him every time they thought the government had sold them a bad deal and that Bakari had brokered a nightmare.
Karma always gets around. At roughly the same time when these discussions of potential betrayal were going on something else happened that would break the trust between government and the returnees and in the process catalyse the coldblooded murder of Bakari.
Subira Sudi Mwangole, succeeded Bakari as the link between the returnees and the state. He too was gunned down.
On April 16th 2015, some two weeks after the bloody Garissa University massacre and 6 months after the initial 60 returnees presented themselves to government, residents in the coastal resort city of Mombasa woke up to something new.
Two billboards with photographs of nine individuals wanted over links to terrorism were placed along major streets in Mombasa.
“Wanted! Dead or Alive. Ksh2million each (reward),” the billboards read.
Some of these names were also on the initial list of returnees only known by a handful of people.
The returnees felt slighted. Someone might have leaked the names to elements outside the agreement. Again, the noses pointed to Bakari, who a few weeks before had held a modest public wedding. His looked like the only life that was back on track.
To the eyes of his former friends, the math just didn’t just add up. He was in talks with government. Many of them had just been publicly outed. He had just done a wedding.
“They found themselves between a rock and a hard place,” Sociology professor at Pwani University Halimu Shauri says. “He was never fully embraced by the community and his former colleagues in Al Shabaab never trusted him again. He was walking around with too many secrets.”
Because of this, death became the only guarantee for lifelong silence.
One evening Bakari, the man who had been to Somalia, Uganda and even Afghanistan on various missions, received a call while in the company of his wife in their house in the outskirts of Ukunda. As he often did, he slowly excused himself and walked out of the house to talk to the other person on the line.
The second he closed the door behind him a lone gun man walked right to him and shot him three times from point blank range before calmly walking away. He had survived many things, but not the assault from the rifle.
With no link to the returnees, the government came up with another initiative to placate the initial 60 after intelligence reports showed the continued involvement of some returnees in criminal activities all along the coast. Subira Sudi Mwangole, was now the link between the returnees and the state.
It was ten months later that some movement with regard to the amnesty program was seen again.
On Monday February 22nd 2016, the then Interior Permanent Secretary Karanja Kibicho unveiled a group of 19 youths at Matuga Training Institute, including five women, whom he said were part of a group of 48 former radicals who had surrendered to government.
As an intervention he said the returnees would get brand new motor cycles as well as dairy cows on a livelihood programme supported by the state and other non-state actors.
“These announcements were an oversight. You can’t do it overtly. The enemy is within us. Anyone paraded as a returnee would be dead in a few days,” Kaguthi says.
This, the returnees said, made them marked men and women. Plus, it pitted them against the thousands more disenfranchised youth within the coast region. All in all, before the news had settled, returnees who had chosen not to surrender quickly repossessed thee motorcycles and used them for their own gain. The intended beneficiaries were left at a worse place. First, they had been outed. Secondly, they had no livelihood.
“Young people in their prime left to be spectators to development were seeing their age mates, wanted by police, being given livelihoods. They were bound to get angry,” Prof Shauri says.”
Subira was gunned down barely weeks after the launch of the motor cycle and dairy cow returnee livelihood program.
Four years after the Amnesty Programme was introduced by government it has had chequered successes. Critics say the set-up was wrong from the initial stages. When it was still at conception stage, the team that included Kaguthi and a host of religious leaders and scholars proposed to go to Columbia and see how the South American country set up its own amnesty programme for thousands of FARC rebels who had denounced their bloodthirsty ways.
A key difference between what Colombia had done and how Kenya was going about with her amnesty was that one was anchored in law and the other, according to Professor Shauri ‘just fell short of being a roadside declaration.’
Colombia’s parliament passed laws protecting FARC’s guerrilla fighters from persecution for minor crimes committed during the country’s 52-year civil war. Rebels found guilty of committing serious crimes, such as massacres, sexual violence or kidnapping, do not fall under amnesty.
The Colombia trip never materialized.
“Someone up there decided we should go to Indonesia instead,” Kaguthi says.
But even the Indonesia trip aborted over what the career civil servant terms as ‘vain competition and barren bickering’ within different institutions entrusted with the country’s security.
“There is no legal basis for protecting anyone in the Kenyan amnesty,” Prof Shauri says. “But it is all we have.”
After all this though and the deaths of Bakari, Subira and many more, coastal Kenya remains an ideological battleground for radicalisation and counter radicalisation narratives and time remains the only judge in this duel.
Excerpt from The Unseen War- Part 1. An investigative piece commissioned and published by Standard Media Group