Writing over two millennia ago, the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle explained that “nature abhors a vacuum.” The rationale behind his argument – ostensibly referring to physics but with much wider relevance – was that there can be no vacuum in nature, as the surrounding material would immediately fill any void. This theory is evident and applicable in reference to terror groups. For just as a vacuum in the natural world is immediately filled by surrounding material, history shows that a vacuum in the human world is filled by terror groups.
Take for example the case of Al Qaeda. Formed in the late 1980s by Islamist fighters who had just finished fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s central hub has frequently re-located to wherever central authority was weakest. In Afghanistan, the complete absence of a functioning state allowed Osama Bin Laden the freedom to plan the September 11th attacks. In the intervening years, the group operated freely from the equally lawless North-West region of Pakistan, while ISIS – itself an offshoot of Al Qaida – has similarly operated from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, all countries in which the central state has ceased to function, creating a vacuum to be filled.
Closer to home, the same has been true of Al-Shabaab in Somalia. For years, the terror group has taken advantage of the weak Somali state to operate with impunity. The terror attacks in Kenya have been planned, funded and rehearsed in Somalia, with the central government unable to intervene.
President Uhuru Kenyatta was quick to assess that the existence of a barely functioning state on our northern border – a vacuum that was filled by Al-Shabaab – is a security challenge for Kenya. While the President was correct to fast-track the construction of a border wall to slow the flow of terrorists and weapons, he also recognised that a wall alone could not protect us. Instability in one country inevitably spills over into a neighbour.
His strategic nous was therefore evident in his efforts over the past few years to improve bilateral relations between our nations, and through this, to strengthen the Somali state. The best way to fill a vacuum is to empower the Somali government to re-assert authority and take a more active role against Al-Shabaab.
President Kenyatta identified the election of new Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo in 2017 as an opportunity to kick start bilateral relations and he attended Farmaajo’s inauguration, which led to the Somali leader making his first presidential visit to Nairobi. At the ceremony in Mogadishu, Uhuru signalled that a new era of cooperation was under way assuring his counterpart that Kenya will play a leading role in strengthening Somalia, and calling on regional and international bodies to do the same.
Last week, saw a visit to Nairobi from a senior Somali figure, this time Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khaire, who came to deliver condolence message following the Dusit terror attack. Khaire thanked Uhuru for making Kenya Somalia’s top strategic partner in the transformation of his country, describing him as the “champion in the transformation of Somalia” and requesting him to continue leading the reconstruction efforts.
The implications of this partnership cannot be overstated. Somalia is today back on track economically and growing ever stronger. Crucially, it is gradually filling the vacuum that allowed Al-Shabaab to operate freely, leading to hundreds of Kenyan fatalities. The fact that Kenya was again the victim of terror in recent weeks should not cause us to overlook the important progress being made. Fundamentally, a strong, functioning and economically viable Somali state is the key to a stable and peaceful region. Kenya has recognised this fact, and we are putting steps in place to make it a reality.