Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The ruckus in Garissa

The pandemonium over the Easter weekend in Kenya’s north-eastern frontier province with Somalia hints at the country’s wider predicament, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Al-Shabab group’s attack on Garissa University College before last week’s Easter weekend echoes the nightmare of the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi. The Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen, or the “Movement of the Striving Youth,” intends to ruin Kenya and in particular its reputation as one of the most popular destinations for tourism in Africa.

Allusions to the destruction of the Kenyan state abound in Al-Shabab propaganda, and Kenya was instrumental in containing the terrorist movement in neighbouring Somalia. “Kenya badly needs additional officers,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a nationwide broadcast in the wake of the attack. “And I will not keep the nation waiting. We will not flinch in the war against terrorists.”

Whether Kenya can recruit and train thousands of security officers remains open to question. There are few certainties in African politics, Kenya not excluded. There is always rivalry as to who is really running the show.

The border between Kenya and Somalia, some 700 km in total, is also porous. Kenya itself has a large ethnic Somali population of about five million people, with Somalis also being dispersed across the Horn of Africa and around the world.

In the Garissa attack, what is crucial is whether the terrorists were Somalis from Somalia or home-grown Kenyan terrorists. If one follows the chain of terror back through Kenya’s post-independence history, one finds that the flame of Islamist identity has been handed on by zealots whose mindset has been very different from the predominantly Christian and animist population of the country.

Muslims in Kenya, including ethnic Somalis, have nevertheless contributed tremendously to the Kenyan economy. Muslim Kenyans have represented the norm in ruling circles in the country.

Kenya’s charismatic Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed is a Muslim ethnic Somali lawyer, diplomat and politician, for example, and is typical of the Somali elite in contemporary Kenya, speaking her native mother tongue Somali as well as English, Russian, Kiswahili and French. She was educated in Kiev University’s School of International Law and International Relations and is a virulent advocate of secularism.

Mohamed served as a legal advisor in Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs before becoming the country’s foreign minister, showing that ethnic Somalis are fully integrated into Kenyan society.

In the wake of last week’s attack the White House announced that US President Barack Obama had called Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to express his condolences for the lives lost during the Garissa University attack.

The Kenyan Education Ministry has closed Garissa University indefinitely. The terrorist attack was the deadliest in Kenyan history since the US embassy in Nairobi was bombed in 1998, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands. What the Kenyan political establishment will now do remains uncertain, and it is left to Kenya’s leadership to prove its mettle. 

The international community has sympathised with Kenya’s predicament, and there has been universal confidence in Kenya’s capacity to contain the terrorist threat. “We feel very confident in the security precautions that will be in place,” read a White House statement.

But there are ominous signs that augur ill. One of the terrorists in the Garissa attack was the son of a Kenyan government official and was named as Abdirahim Abdullahi whose father is a local chief in Mandera county in north-eastern Kenya.

The earlier Al-Shabab attack on the Westgate Mall resulted in the deaths of 67 people. Garissa was a far more gruesome affair. Christian students now refuse to go back to Garissa, a predominantly Muslim and ethnic Somali provincial town, with portentous implications. 

Operation Linda Nchi against Al-Shabab in which Kenyan troops featured prominently was a watershed in the war against terrorism in the Horn of Africa, and Garissa was not a one-off incident. Other terrorist attacks are sure to follow, and there may be little that the Kenyan authorities or security forces can do.

The Kenyan security forces have launched raids in Nairobi and regions with large Muslim populations, especially those with ethnic Somali majorities. The efficacy of this policy is doubtful, however, and it might encourage further terrorist attacks. Thousands were detained without charge in the raids, and their consequences may now come home to roost.

On Monday, Kenyan troops destroyed two Al-Shabab camps in Somalia. Kenyan warplanes pounded the camps in the Gedo region with the intention of stopping cross-border raids by Al-Shabab into Kenya. The conundrum, however, is that the terrorists are Kenyan citizens and not necessarily Somali nationals.

“Kenya has not targeted any of our bases,” sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, Al-Shabab’s military operations spokesman, told Reuters. Kenya’s Police Chief David Kimaiyo and Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku were also summarily dismissed in the wake of the Garissa attack and an army general installed as the country’s new interior minister.

The new minister, Joseph Nkaissery, hails from the ethnic Maasai community, and the Kenyan government was allegedly under intense pressure to fire the former minister.

Was the Kenyan security forces inability to avert the Garissa terrorist attack a sign of numbness, indicating burnout? What is perturbing is that Christian students were singled out for retribution in the attack, making the full religious and ethnic repercussions of the surprise attack hard to unravel.

The fact that three security officers and two University security personnel were also among the dead is telling. Their ethnic identities are as yet unknown. The Kenyan government has offered a reward of $215,000 to anyone leading the authorities to Al-Shabab leader Mohamed Mahmoud who also goes by the aliases Dulyadin and Gamadhere.

In the attack, the militants separated Muslims from Christians, and even Muslims were not spared if they did not recite verses from the Quran correctly. This puts Kenya’s cultural and religious hybridity at stake, threatening the ethnic and religious diversity of the country.

The implications of the reported death of key Al-Shabab leader Adan Garaar are unclear. Opposition leaders, including former prime minister Raila Odinga, are blaming the Kenyan government’s bellicose actions in Somalia for the attack. Recalling that the US   withdrew its troops from Somalia after 18 soldiers were killed in the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Odinga urged the Kenyan government to follow suit. 

Kenya sent troops to Somalia in 2011 in order to contain the Al-Shabab threat and restore political stability and democracy in its north-eastern neighbour. “The US used to have many soldiers in Somalia, but it recalled them,” Odinga mused, implying that Kenyan troops too must now be withdrawn.

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