Above: Members of PROACT, a community-based intervention programme to address polarization and extremism in Kenya, at the launch in August 2020.
Senior Programme Manager, Strong Cities Network (SCN)
Brand New Community-Based Intervention Programme Launched in Kenya Seeks to Integrate Communities into Local Action Plans.
In the last five years, the Global Terrorism Index has ranked Kenya amongst the top 25 countries in the world most affected by terrorism, perpetrated mostly by al Shabaab. The country is widely believed to contribute the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the terrorist group, with recruitment driven by a combination of historical socio-economic and political marginalisation of Muslim-dominated regions in the country, a significant youth bulge, a poor economy, and a trust deficit between communities and the authorities. The broader East Africa region is also witnessing a surge in Islamic State operations in the wake of its territorial and military loss in Iraq and Syria.
Faced with this challenge, the Kenyan government and other non-state actors have increased efforts to ‘drain the swamp of radicalisation’, and have developed County Action Plans (CAPs) to initiate this. However, gaps remain in the resourcing and implementation of these action plans. Trust between the authorities and the communities is still lacking, further eroding the few gains achieved by P/CVE stakeholders.
One possible response has emerged in the form of a new community-based interventions programme, PROACT, launched in June this year in partnership with the SCN’s parent organisation, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), as well as with the Kenyan national government and sub-national governments in Kwale, Nakuru, and Isiolo Counties.
Designed to strengthen coordination between and amongst national, sub-national and civil society organisations (CSOs) to stem radicalisation and extremism, PROACT is driven by global best practice, but rooted firmly in the diverse environments of communities across the Kenyan landscape. The inclusion of county leadership and CSOs draws from leading international examples, including the SCN’s own local prevention networks in the Middle East and the Western Balkans, and will ensure that community-based interventions are both multi-faceted and grounded in human rights-based frameworks.
In addition to supporting Kenya’s existing P/CVE strategies rooted locally in CAPs, a key aim of PROACT is to ground its activities in existing evidence, while supporting new research on the ground from both SCN and Act Change Transform (Act!), a national level research, monitoring and evaluation sub-contractor, which will pave the way for further activities. The programme is also working closely with county-based partners, including Human Rights Agenda in Kwale, Midrift Hurinet in Nakuru and Isiolo Peace Link in Isiolo.
“PROACT’s role in the months to come in identifying, mapping, flagging and ultimately dispelling COVID-19-related disinformation through its connections with grassroots networks across Kenya, will be vital.”
Extremism and polarisation are not the only threats PROACT will address. The programme is being rolled out during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the surge of online disinformation that has accompanied it. UN chief Antonio Guterres has warned that the coronavirus pandemic not only threatens gains in fighting poverty and building peace, but also risks exacerbating old conflicts and generating new ones. The pandemic has also occasioned new tensions concerning police brutality in enforcing containment measures, while the localised lockdowns, national dawn-to-dusk curfews and social distancing measures have led to the loss of jobs and livelihoods, which in turn can be easily exploited by al Shabaab to radicalise and recruit.
In Kenya and as in many other parts of the world, al Shabaab has engaged in significant mis/disinformation campaigns regarding the COVID-19 virus and the government responses. Narratives such as the virus being a ‘western illness that affects rich people only, a small ‘soldier of Allah’ and a ‘divine punishment for infidels’ have been cited.
To address this, during the launch of the programme in Nakuru County, a National Counter Terrorism Centre official called for “dual purposing” in P/CVE, which seeks to incorporate COVID-19-related interventions into regular P/CVE programming. The official added that “we can no longer run away from this pandemic and the best we could do is to use our current programme to raise awareness on the pandemic, how it can be prevented and, more importantly, how it can alter, for the worse, the P/CVE landscape”. PROACT’s role in the months to come in identifying, mapping, flagging and ultimately dispelling COVID-19-related disinformation through its connections with grassroots networks across Kenya, will be vital.
Evidence-based research has been identified as another major gap in P/CVE interventions. Research, both offline and online, into the extremist ecosystem in Kenya and the East African region more broadly has been established as a goal of the programme. In addition to analysing emerging terrorist recruitment tactics and strategies, research will focus on delivering local services such as assessing the implementation of the CAPs and mapping psychosocial and trauma healing service providers. Under its Young Cities programme, SCN is undertaking research on the COVID-19 hate and extremism content in Kenya, Lebanon and Senegal to understand how youth exposure to hateful and extremist content during the pandemic has affected them, and provide recommendations for how to prevent this.
The findings from these research efforts will be shared back to the communities and stakeholders on the ground to ensure that lessons are being integrated and contributing to P/CVE programming.
Engaging local communities and incorporating their knowledge and experience into national and sub-national prevention efforts is a relatively new venture in the field of international P/CVE. Kenya offers an important example in this, with the launch in 2015 of several local action plans that reflected local priorities. While these were criticised at the time for not adequately capturing the concerns of its communities, PROACT forms part of the critical next step in revising these action plans and reinforcing them with evidence-based research and local critique, while working to strengthen community trust and relations with law enforcement and local government.