Can the Government of Kenya shut down Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps? Yes. Should it do so? That, good people, is the 600,000-persons question.
Kenya has hosted refugees and asylum-seekers for decades. They have fled to Kenya from Uganda, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Angola and Chad. Kenya has admitted and cared for these people in part because of its obligations under international law and in part because Kenya has had a hand in peace processes underway at various times in the past, such as with the Sudan (that led to the independence of South Sudan through a peaceful referendum) and Somalia (that led to the establishment of the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu).
Dadaab is the largest camp, hosting asylum-seekers and refugees from Somalia. In the words of the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior and Co-ordination of National Government, it is also where terrorist attacks against Kenyans have been planned and co-ordinated, singling out the Westgate Siege as the most high profile. The Cabinet Secretary wants the camp shut and the asylum seekers and refugees repatriated to Somalia because (a) it is in Kenya's security interests and (b) Somalia is now much, much safer and the asylum-seekers and refugees will be much safer in areas liberated from the Shabaab. The Government of Kenya has so far turned a deaf ear to calls for holding off on shutting down the camp, with the Cabinet Secretary announcing that a billion shillings has so far been set aside for the exercise.
Kenya, in the past six years, has had a particularly difficult relationship with nationals of Somalia and its own Kenyan Somalis, not that this relationship has ever been health to begin with when one remembers the Shifta Wars. When Kenya aced increasing attacks by the Shabaab at the beginning of this decade, it sent troops into Somalia for the first time and those troops have never left, having joined up the African Union Emission in Somalia, AMISOM. Few Kenyans remember that its soldiers have been fighting and dying in Somalia for five years.
Initially, the mission was to prevent further attacks in Kenya by the Shabaab. That mission has failed. It failed because the Shabaab is not a national power, does not control territory using a public service or government infrastructure, does not have a standing army or targettable military and other assets and is not interested in negotiating with other belligerent powers active in Somalia that also include Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi. The Shabaab will not be defeated in the field of battle or in the field of ideas, because that is not where it is fighting.
Kenya's evolving anti-Shabaab strategy has now brought it to Dadaab and the decision to shut down the camp and the dispersal of the camp's hundreds of thousands residents because it has been infiltrated by the Shabaab who have continued to wage asymmetrical war against Kenya from there. I fear that Kenya's latest gambit will fail, will isolate traditional international allies at a crucial time, lose whatever hearts and minds had been won in the past five years and the sympathy that had accrued after the bloody El-Adde Attack three months ago.
Kenya's border with Somalia, even with the border wall, remains especially porous and Kenya's large population of Kenyan Somalis means that the dispersal of the over 600,000 from Dadaab will not prevent the few dedicated members of the Shabaab from blending in with the civilian population and carrying on as before. Kenya's mission in Somalia failed because it did not have a clearly articulated exit strategy; Kenya's latest gambit might fail if there isn't an intelligence component that tracks and neutralises threats from among the former residents of the camp.
Neither Kenya nor AMISOM nor the US will win a war with the Shabaab, especially now that al Qaeda and ISIS are slowly being incorporated in the conflict in Somalia. US bungling in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan means that those countries will be producing terrorists for, foreseeably, the next thirteen years. Al Qaeda and ISIS have inspired other terror groups in Nigeria, Mali and Niger and it was only a matter of time before Kenya and the rest of the Horn of Africa got sucked in too.
Kenya can only win if it becomes just as ruthless as the Shabaab and target all its assets and support infrastructure with ruthlessness, including civilian assets and support infrastructure. Or Kenya can win by fighting an intelligence war that accurately targets the Shabaab's command, control, communications and intelligence infrastructure, disrupting and destroying it and preventing the Shabaab from regrouping or rebuilding. One way or the other, the current stratagem has failed. A new one is needed.