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Two weeks ago, Kenya became a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This two-year membership of the UNSC could significantly change the trajectory for Kenya in its fight against Al Shabaab.

Indeed, in the 10-point agenda by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the UN during the 2021-2022 tenure, countering terrorism and prevention of violent extremism is listed as point number four. Nairobi considers the Somalia-based Al Shabaab a serious threat to its internal security, but the international community, including the UN, thinks otherwise. In August last year, Kenya petitioned the UN to list the militant group as a terrorist organisation under the Security Council Resolution 1267.

Classifying Al Shabaab as a terrorist group would give Kenya’s counter-terrorism efforts a global impetus, place the militants under a UN sanctions regime and make a huge difference in the fight that Nairobi started when it launched Operation Linda Nchi and sent troops to Somalia in October 2011. “This is important to bring global efforts in tackling the group,” Foreign Affairs PS Macharia Kamau said last year when he announced the plans to make the submission to the UN. A senior Foreign Affairs ministry official, who does not wish to be quoted, says this classification would “help us to ensure that any network that supports Al Shabaab can be dealt with through sanctions”.

However, humanitarian groups and diplomats opposed this petition, warning that adding Al Shabaab to the same sanctions list as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State could cripple the delivery of aid in Somalia. A few other countries, including Kenya’s closest allies such as the US, also vetoed the request. Curiously though, the US had designated Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation way back in February 2008, following the group’s proclamation of its allegiance to Al Qaeda. Subsequently, countries like Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada and the UK also listed Al Shabaab as a terrorist organisation, according to UN News. Eventually Kenya lost its bid, and Al Shabaab still does not feature on the UN list of terrorists.

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But Thursday’s UNSC vote gives Kenya a silver lining, as the country could leverage its membership to renew its petition and fight from the inside, with a better chance of winning. Should Kenya decide to re-introduce the petition, it will have a vote this time and a chance to convince the 14 other UNSC members to support it.

The UNSC has 15 members – five permanent (China, France, Russia, UK and US) with veto powers and 10 non-permanent ones elected for two-year terms by the General Assembly. Experts who have been calling for UNSC reforms and expansion of permanent membership for decades say lack of reforms has produced a “highly unequal and inefficient” Security Council. The current structuring of UNSC converges most of the powers to the permanent five, while non-permanent members have been “relegated to a role of rubberstamping,” notes a study quoted in The Diplomat.

This presents Kenya with a major obstacle. Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs argue that Kenya’s bid last year failed because the US blocked it. The US still holds its veto power and could still be a stumbling block. Nevertheless, “Al Shabaab pockets in Central and Southern Somalia must be eliminated and this can only happen if all members of the UNSC speak with one voice to cut off pipelines of money, food and weapons from Al Shabaab accomplices within and outside Somalia,” as a ministry officia says.

The big question therefore is will Kenya’s presence in the UNSC give it more traction to revive the resolution and finally put Al Shabaab under these sanctions?

- The writer is an international conflict scholar and a sub-editor at The Standard

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