After Garissa, al-Shabaab is a threat to the whole of East Africa

Thursday, 9 April 2015
Author: 
Richard Dowden

The first time I saw Uhuru Kenyatta speak was in Addis Ababa at the 2012 World Economic Forum. As he stepped down off the platform, his assistant slipped and tumbled heavily down the steps. Everyone rushed to help him. Kenyatta was closest. He turned, saw the man was not badly hurt and looked away. He did not help him to get up.

On November 23rd last year Kenyatta was in Dubai watching a Formula 1 race. Meanwhile, twenty-eight Kenyans were taken off a bus in Mandera County and murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. He was told of the incident but did not return to Kenya until the motor racing was finished.

When the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi was attacked in September 2013 it took the Kenyan Special Forces three and half hours to arrive. There was then an internal battle over who should be in control between the police chief and the head of the army. Sixty-seven people were killed. The President was strangely absent but he complained angrily about a shocking picture of a wounded woman on the front page of the Nation newspaper the next day.

And last week it took eleven hours for Kenya’s anti-terrorist unit to get to Garissa – flight time fifty-five minutes. There had been warnings of an attack in the locality, but only two armed guards were posted on the gate at the university where hundreds of Kenyans from all over the country were living. Why did no one in the Kenyan government recognise their vulnerability? No one from Mr Kenyatta’s government has so far visited the wounded or made any comment on the solidarity march that ordinary Kenyans organised in Nairobi.

But on Monday jet fighters bombed camps in Somalia which the government said were terrorist bases. They did the same after the Mandera massacre and claimed they had killed the perpetrators. Vice President Willam Ruto said: “Our retaliatory action left more than 100 fatalities and four camps were destroyed.”

If the world has learned anything about Islamic fundamentalism in the last two decades it is that such revenge actions are utterly counterproductive. Indeed, they have superheated the hatred and fueled further attacks.

This is not defeatism. On the contrary, the lessons are clear: first, know your enemy, second win hearts and minds, third establish an excellent intelligence network and fourth deliver a swift and accurate response. These are the only ways to contain terrorism and eventually defeat it. Kenya’s politicians and defense chiefs seem not to be able to do any of these things.

Admittedly, they are up against a formidable foe in the Somalia islamist group al-Shabaab, which fights with tenacity and determination and continues to attract recruits. Joining a terrorist group like al-Shabaab may seem logical when, like most Somalis, you have little to lose: most born after 1988 have grown up knowing only shells, bullets and bombs. The country – stuffed with weaponry during the Cold War - has been embroiled in civil war ever since. The American invasion in 1992 brought a false dawn but the Americans abandoned the country in the wake of the Blackhawk Down incident on the night of October 3rd 1993.

That incident alone demonstrated the pride and aggression of the Somalis when attacked. Eighteen Americans died but according to American sources between 1500 and 3000 Somalis were killed that night, hundreds of them with guns in their hands. My own guesstimate after walking around the site of the battle a few days after and talking to hospital staff was about a thousand deaths.

Since then a generation has grown up knowing nothing but war and impoverishment. The fighting has moved around but only stopped for brief periods, including when the Islamic courts ruled in 2005-6. This period of peace ended when Ethiopia, Somalia’s traditional enemy, invaded. The retrospective question is would al-Shabaab have defeated or taken over the Islamic Courts Union? Or would the Courts have held the centre ground? Too late now. The Somali government only actively controls a small part of the country in and around the capital, Mogadishu.

In Kenya there is another factor: more than two million Kenyan Somalis. A bit of history is needed here. Like many of Africa’s borders drawn by Europeans, the Kenyan-Somali border is in the ‘wrong’ place. In the Scramble for Africa, the British encouraged the Italians to take over the north east coast of Somalia (to stop the French getting it) but grabbed as much of the southern part as they dared and incorporated it into British-ruled Kenya. In the lead up to independence a referendum was held in this area. Eighty-five percent of Kenyan Somalis there voted in favour of separating from Kenya and being incorporated into Somalia. But the British, scrambling out of Africa in the 1960s as fast and carelessly as they had grabbed it in the 1890s, left the decision to the government of the newly independent Kenya. Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, President Jomo Kenyatta, sent in the army. The Somali government – there really was one then – accused Kenya of genocide.

Today those two million Kenyan Somalis are treated as foreigners or second class citizens. After the Kenyan army joined other East African forces in Somalia in 2011, the country became a prime target for al-Shabaab. Kenyan-Somalis live their lives under suspicion from the country’s security forces, often harassed, assaulted and forced to pay bribes. This treatment pushes them towards their fellow Somalis in al-Shabaab. The spiral continues downwards. Meanwhile the Kenyatta government is widely seen as the most corrupt that Kenya has ever had.

The surprising element in the Garissa attack has been that some of the attackers spoke not in Somali, but in Swahili, the lingua franca of the East African coast. Islamic fundamentalism is growing on the coast but, unlike Somalia, the Kenyan and Tanzanian coastal ports, particularly Mombasa, matter to the region and the world. They are the main arteries for Kenya itself, Uganda, South Sudan, Rwanda, eastern Congo and parts of northern Tanzania. If these routes are disrupted by the activities of Islamic militants this will harm the region. The whole of East Africa is at stake.

That is why Kenya’s leaders must take their minds off their bank balances, take these attacks seriously, understand what they mean and devise smarter strategies and more effective tactics for dealing with them.

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society.