Very well. So the Boni forest is an important forest ecosystem that traverses two countries, Kenya and Somalia, and is an important forest ecosystem, especially with regards to peace and security matters. The Boni forest on the Kenya side traverses three counties. One of the counties is Lamu where we had a tourist abducted in the early days. Where the relatives would come hijack and cross people over and ask for ransoms and sometimes just disappear. People, who they abducted, foreign nationals, who they abducted from the Kenyan soil. Also, the Boni forest is also home to Tana River County where the Tana River, which is one of the biggest rivers in the country that provides hydropower, pours into the ocean, so it forms a huge delta. Where many communities have come, have come overtime to get their livelihoods. And when it is very, very dry, in the mountainsides of Kenya we find many herders coming down the animals right into the delta where they can get water and pasture. The forest sits in the river County, which has also significant historic importance with regards to the university attack that 148 university students lose their life during an early morning attack by al Shebaab.
Yes. It was devastating, too devastating. The fact that, in a sense, young lives, helplessly, were brought down by very heavily armed, young men who had a very calculated move and held fire and were able to repel the security agencies for quite long.
So very sad for us then it became of increased importance because also it means as a huge border, it has a long border, it was a long border between Kenya and Somalia. But there is also a trade route, many of the traders, who use the Mogadishu port sometimes have found their goods coming through the country through the border point along Kenya, Garissa and Lamu Port. So, not too long ago, about five years ago, the government declared the Boni forest as an operation area.
Before we get there, can I ask, so how did this, you know, so you know, you’re describing a very strategically important region. How is it that the region and the forest itself became a place where al Shabaab began to make incursions and set up bases?
Uh-huh. So the other side, of the Somali territory, the forest goes right into Jubaland and Jubaland is one of the areas that al Shabaab has held ground for a long time. It’s an area where also the government on the Somali side has not had quite a significant presence for a long period of time. It also is one of the, it holds some of the important ports and fishing areas including Rus Kamboni. And because it is a high forest with heavy vegetation, with heavy rainfall at times. It becomes an important ecosystem for goods that are not very well defined or groups that are, that would hide under the cover of vegetation.
It becomes an important strategic area for them to live and thrive. Why? Because they can easily find their water within the forest, they can easily go undercover under the high bushes, and they can also move up and down the terrain without getting too much identified as we move across the border. Being a tourist there means that some of the border points become very porous because we can’t, you wouldn’t expect that there would be a policeman every inch of a border, border patrol person, every inch of the border where the forest traverses.
An ideal, it’s an ideal, a place to go to. Just two years ago, an Italian girl who had come in as a volunteer to Kenya was abducted in Kilifi, Kilifi borders Tana River and she was taken into Tana River and they crossed over to Somalia through the Boni forest. So as much as the government tried to come to search for her to rescue her, because of its vastness, they were still able to hide and hold her hostage. And she finally was crossed over into Somalia.
So how had, historically, or let me say this, how did the government respond to and government security forces respond to the fact that al Shabaab had increasingly set up these bases inside its territory, inside the forest?
So the first thing that happened is that the government declared it as an operation zone and, AMISOM was deployed, to work in the Somalia side to secure communities and to secure towns and to free them from the whole of al Shebaab.
Yes. They were deployed on the Somalia side to reinforce the security operations that were happening on that side. And on the Kenya side, with the Kenya government, also set up a campaign that was called operation [inaudible], translated to mean a campaign, an operation to protect the border. And therefore the military set base and many other specialized courses set base, so as to overcome the challenge that the terrorists were posing and the threat they were presenting, to the government. They are such a threat because what they really do is make sure that there’s no government and if possible, try and create their own, their own territory where they can govern and reign without the formerly recognized government. So that operation meant the Boni put in place several restrictions, the restrictions of communities that were living in the forest.
and when the risks escalated, the communities were asked to evacuate the indigenous communities, the hunters and gatherers, and other communities that were living inside the Boni. Some of the farming communities were asked to evacuate so that the government could conduct a more intensive operation that included bombing of the places where they had sited, al Shabaab places. However, that presented a challenge at that point. And that is where we now began to, provide opportunities where we could, provide intervention. One, because of the prolonged, restrictions on movement, when civil societies were beginning to get, frustrated and were ready to take the government, to court, so that the government could lift the ban on movement or lift the ban that was the cautions that were limiting people’s freedoms.
We also realized that because the communities were going to be ever created, it meant that many livelihoods would have been, would have been put at more risk, more vulnerable. We had also had dialogues with young people, with the elders in the community, in the communities in Lamu, and they were increasingly expressing frustration because further to the cautions that were imposed and limitations to get into the forest, the ocean was also banned. Night fishing and night movements were also restricted.
Well, I mean, that sounds well, it just like sounds what you’re describing is a very heavy-handed response by the Kenyan government and the Kenyan security forces who, you know, are legitimately trying to fight al Shabaab, but in the process are imposing all these restrictions on civilians in the area. And presumably, these civilians are getting frustrated with the government and the security services and presumably, they’re more than frustrated. You know, these government security services are undermining their livelihoods.
Undermining their livelihoods, undermining their freedom, and also not getting consulted. So they just see measures top-down, very little consultation and everybody has to draw the line and consequences were dire. So the grievances, the community frustration, was at an all-time high. Where they were saying they could no longer get a decent livelihood, a decent means of earning. Now that they couldn’t fish at night, during the day there’s not enough fish stock for them to, to fish and sell. And even, for example, take their children to school, if they had children who are going to high school or to the universities or to the colleges, the few that, that wanted to take their children, they said the couldn’t. And even the few young men who, who no longer could go to the ocean at night were getting now more attracted to other sources of livelihood, including joining the groups.
Yes, it was. It was playing out towards, the extremist networks were not, maybe hoping that people can now begin to dissociate themselves with the government and, and begin to associate themselves with them who looked like they were having a solution to the, to the issues that the community was facing.
So, so can I ask, how is it that then in this context in which, you know, the heavy-handed government response is, you know, driving some people to violent extremism is undermining other people’s livelihoods. How is it that you came up with this idea to have a stakeholder’s conference and elements, how did the elements of a peace plan and a peace process sort of come to you?
So, part of our work is we seek to understand, the issues that, the trial, the conflict. We seek to listen to both participants in the conflict and this time we choose to listen to both the government security agencies and the community, the communities. And we did separate, dialogues, dialogues within the security actors, within the old space various actors. Because we realized for example, in the border we had got many, many agencies. We have the Kenya forest service, that is a disciplined service and therefore they have arms who are in charge of the forest. We had the Kenya wildlife service that looks at the wildlife that also armed and were also important actors in that same space. We had the Kenya Maritime Authority who managed the waters.
We also had the County government, which was interested in building the fishery sector because the County government, part of their roles and responsibilities is to create a conducive environment for agriculture and fisheries. we also have the Kenya army that was an important actor in the scene. So meeting within the security agencies helped them understand where the gaps are and what are the gaps were and what they were trying to address. And to also check if what they were trying to address was bearing fruit. We also brought in the communities who are very vocal and voiced their frustrations, around the fact that they couldn’t move, the fact that they couldn’t get through government services, and the fact that they couldn’t get opportunities to engage with a security actor. So we then, were able to get the government security and administration agencies, including the County commissioners who were able now to fit together, and have constructive, and give them constructive discussions to have discussions where they were able to talk about what insight was there to see us as they have their own way of securing their communities.
We then brought on board the organizations that were willing to, that were ready to go and sue the government. For denying some of the basic human rights and freedoms. And we ask them that if they could consider before they go the legal route before they go to court if they could consider to use that basket of funding that they had and bring it to the same table, and build a bigger process. So we ended up building a coalition of many actors and stakeholders who are all interested in resolving the conflict in various ways. And we set to mobilize all the resources that we had within ourselves and the resources that were coming from various different agencies, including, the European Union, including the USID, including the Department of State. So all those parts of funding were pulled together, including government agencies.
And we formed a big working group that worked for a period of about a month and a half to look at the conflict to understand what we would have, defined as the actors within that conflict. And then to really see where would we start. We brought all those actors together from all those three counties where would we start together. And what we did over the three, well over a period of three weeks, we were able to agree that what we wanted to see was that the communities were consulted and that communities were central to the development of security, any security strategies that were being, unfolded in that region. And we were able to map all the important actors. So we brought together all the members of parliament from all those counties. We brought in the County government officials and to the highest persons who came for that meeting were the speakers of the County assemblies. We also brought in representatives of the disciplines houses from the various disciplines, services that were sitting in the Boni. We brought in the elders who were representing the communities where much grievance had come through. We also identified the young people who fit the highest branch because many had said they couldn’t move up and down, couldn’t come and seek for jobs, livelihoods had been curtailed, their families had been, had been ratcheted and women.
Well, I mean it’s interesting to me what you’re describing is very much not a kind of conventional top-down peace plan or peace process. It’s just the opposite of that. You’re, you’ve identified various stakeholders. Sometimes it sounds like even from the margins of society. But you’ve also brought together the disparate security forces in different parts of the Kenyan government, which don’t seem as you described, to always be working together or in the best interests of the people. And you have this massive conference and stakeholder meeting. So what came of that? So what was the result of this massive peace process that you put together?
So when we brought the leaders to the room, many of them had not sat together in such a space. So the first two days was quite a bit of storming, quite a bit of energy, confrontations, people talking about their positions and interests and what they think is best for their communities, and negotiation. So how do we want to secure? Do we want to have more guns given to civilians as police reservists? Do we want to see more, boots on the ground? Do we actually need the operation leader? How can we get the government to account for the sons who are disappearing from the communities who cannot be tripped, who are believed to have been picked by security agencies? So the first two days are very heavy. By the third day, and part of our peacebuilding strategy is to allow people to allow the conversation to heat up, but moderate it in such a way that by the time people have expressed what frustrates them, what angers them, what, what would upset them we are able to land into a place where we start looking at how then do we move forward.
So when we got to the, in fact, we added, we had to add a day because we realized by day three, when were supposed to be winding up, we were not yet at a place where people are ready to go back and have solutions that they could work together. But by the fourth day, we had already, people had now broken into groups within the important group, and had meetings, some going right through the night to see how best to build, have a cross relationship that would allow different actors to work together. So some of the things that came out of that conference was to begin to understand and to track, how we best engage the security actors in the communities to improve the night fishing, environment.
So how would the government, provide an opportunity for engagement of the fishermen to go forward and see how they can secure the night? The government makes sure that fishing at night is safe, but also then the fishermen provide an opportunity to, also become a party to the design of the peace architecture that was happening with the ocean. We also spoke about peace programming within the schools. At the time of the conflict, many schools within the forest had already been closed down because of the operations that were going on. So five, at least five schools. Some had been, banned by al Shabaab. Others had had to be closed down so that military action could go on and see where the sales were. So part of it was to see then, how do we, have programming within schools, the schools that were open, so that the children begin to understand the threat and how they can engage through peace clubs, and build a sense of citizenship, within the school.
Another thing that also was addressed if the migration of herders and the livestock up and down, the Kenyan Northern corridor. So it was one of the very sticky challenges because what al Shabaab had done over time is that they had started infiltrating the migration corridors and they would walk down as herders were herding animals in the forest, but really we’re not herding they were just using the animals to move from one point to another. So when the security agencies would crackdown, they will crack down both on the good herders who are just out there trying to make sure that their animals have pasture and water and put them in the same box with these other young unidentified people who are also in the forest. So there’s a huge grievance because many farmers are saying the herders are being harassed. But the government was saying, we have got no way of telling apart who are the good herders are and who the enemy is within the forest.
So, what you’ve described are a number of different strategies, the end results of which seemed to try to increase the confidence of people who live in this region, that they will have a secure livelihood, and that they will be treated with more respect by the government. Years later, so now, this was two years ago, how different is the situation, is the conflict in the Boni forest region, today than it was before you started this conflict? Pardon me. Before you started the conference.
So many milestones have been achieved. One of the biggest milestones is that now we have, a fisherman platform that has got both the fishermen management units that you call the Beach Management Unit working with the government security agencies and the government agricultural sector to wit, all the fishermen who go out to do night fishing. And we have been given a card which will be a card alongside their national ID that they can use and it’s a biometric card that they can use when they’re out in the ocean, fishing and doing their business as long as they can show that card they are known to be credible fishermen who own a vessel that is identified and what they have agreed is that they will be accounting for the number of vessels that go out from their beach landing sites and they will account for the number of individuals who go and they’ll also account for the number of individuals who come back.
But also increasingly, that platform is meant also to be an enterprise. We are looking forward to the blue economy where now the fishermen can come and also use that same platform to inform the buyers of the kind of fish or the amount of stock of fish they’ve brought back from their night fishing. So the night fishing has been improved greatly. Fishermen are now more free, I would say, to conduct the night fishing without too much harassment from the security agencies who did not know how best to get them. The second thing is that now the schools within the Boni forest have recently been opened. Just last year, in November, we were able to support, the official government opening, ceremony that’s so five schools inside the forest open and a commitment by the government to sending teachers and to taking resources into those schools and to provide protection and security for the learners and the teachers who will be in those schools.
The other thing that has also happened is that there was an engagement around criminal justice actors. So there’s many more conversations now happening with the criminal justice actors including the police, the director of public prosecution, the courts, the probation people so as to mix the conversations with communities around violent extremism and, people who are committing acts of violence extremist to begin to understand what the repercussions are of holding information, of aiding, of abetting or even turning a blind to eye. So conversations between the justice actors, also peace clubs, we now have peace clubs that have been formed by the national commission. The government agency responsible for cohesion in the country has now set up peace clubs within the Tana River County. But most important is that now there’s community engagement, there’s community dialogue, active spaces where citizens are working with their army, citizens are engaging the police, citizens are engaging the special forces, now more than it was when the, when the conference began.
So there’s a better opportunity for people, both citizens and fit to sit together and talk about sensitive security matters. Well, al Shebaab still continues to grow back some of the gains that we make. For example, you will find, just recently they went and attacked, an airstrip, an American base was attacked and they bunt off the equipment and some of the aircraft. Just a few days ago they shot at our backs. So, as much as we move forward, there will still be, incidences where people stop and sometimes we see a reversal of the progress that had been made in terms of building relationships and trust between the citizens. But it is a work in progress.
Okay. Okay. So it seems like you’ve kind of hit upon a successful model for conflict transformation and for peacebuilding. I’m wondering if the model that you’ve kind of put together for the Boni forest region can be applied elsewhere. Where there is conflict, particularly in Africa where you do have this kind of combination of local grievances and mismanagement by the government and violent extremism that tend to fuel, that tend to feed off each other and fuel conflict. Are there lessons that you could draw from your experience that could be applied elsewhere?
Yeah. First of all, the shared humanity, when we bring together actors, we hope them unpack issues that bring them together. What are these issues that will bring them together that they can address together and both have a win-win? So, for example, when we got into the fishing, the night fishing space, it was in the interest of the community to go out into the ocean at night and fish, but it was also in the interest of the government to secure the ocean at night that it won’t have al Shebaab crossing over and conducting attacks on the Kenyan border through the water. So the two entities, in this particular conference, had one interest and therefore coming together to see it and address it became an opportunity for them to mix together but also address other bigger matters in the community.
So shared humanity and shared interest in something that we focus on. The other thing is that our approach is non-adversarial. So as we are engaging the stakeholder separately, we provide, opportunities to build, to build their confidence, to engage in a non-adversarial manner where they can be able to talk and organize their issues that they can come and engage with the other party when they finally get to meet. That is quite a bit of work and part of the learning is that some of these initiatives and activities that we do, would require you to depend to do more activities than probably you had initially planned for. But what has really been our game changer is when we brought many more actors, who will not just search for common ground working alone in that ecosystem.
It was searching for common grounds with human rights organizations, it was other international end use, it was the leaders, forming grassroot networks. So that big pool and also bringing, government agencies that are interested in peacebuilding together. That then became, it now created a snowball effect. It built momentum on its own. It’s got a life of its own and the success was shared. And many people then began to see where we could, take up actions and take them forward, from their own end of the hood. So shared coordination is very important. So if you’re dealing with a difficult conflict or a projected conflict, it would be good to have stakeholders work together to think, sit down and think through that conflict. Just like security people.
If you look at people who are, who are planning, security matters for a country, you find that they seek and we create strategies over a long time and then find, execute the same with peacebuilders. We should sit down together as peacebuilders, think through the conflict or think through the issue that we want to address over time and create a strategy that ends up presenting multi-pronged, opportunities for the conflict to be addressed actor. So rather than being an exclusionist, working together is difficult, but it’s not easy to have people from different organizations, from government, from federal societies to sit together continuously for a long time. It requires skill and it requires a good convener. But once you do that you are able to go longer, you’re able to address the conflict, into a much more longer-term, kind of offsetting.
Finally is that we also believe that peace is a process. So, once we begin to see the results, we know that the results have to be sustained. So how do we ensure that the community, the environment, the stakeholders are the ones that are now beginning to drive the process, forward, and create a market? So you see like the cards that we started with three years ago. The first pilot was purely a pilot that was funded by civil society actors on its own. But when we piloted it, we tried it out. Next, we got into a place where the government was hosting the platform as an ICT platform, as an ICT service that would be offered to citizens. So the process is now getting, has gone into the market. It has got, the media, actor, the government, leading the process. That bit is what makes lasting peace. The sustainability peace is where the initiative now resources, itself and moves ahead.