After Garissa, al-Shabaab is a threat to the whole of East Africa – By Richard Dowden

dowden9The 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.

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5 thoughts on “After Garissa, al-Shabaab is a threat to the whole of East Africa – By Richard Dowden

  1. Richard,

    This is a very interesting article and covered many issues. I have always questioned the legality of putting the al-shabbah on the terrorist group bracket. If the government of Somalia only have control of less than 10% of the country and that’s with the help of foreign occupiers such as Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and other countries.

    Shouldn’t it be beneficial to work with the al-Shabbah than to fighting a war that have no end and no winners. The ordinary people of Somalia and now many civilians are the poor who are suffering as a consequence of a war that is engineered to further divide the Africans and bring discriminatory tendency amongst people

    In 2010, I was disgusted to see how many Ugandans were labelling Somalians and Muslims as terrorists without any evidence or justifications.

    Africans and Africa have no choice but to go back to natural borders before colonisation, this is the only way that war and discrimination will be avoided in the continent.

    I am writing using my phone and not able to go into more detailed analysis as I would have like.

  2. Again Richard youve hit the nail on the head. As with Kenya also Nigeria. Africa needs to get its act together. Where is The AU and the Arab league and the UN itwas ever Thus. Reginald Arkhurst FCIArb FRSA

  3. Your concluding statement hit the bull’s eye – “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”.

    African leaders have no power without the people. The only way to resolve this issue is for the people to demand the kind of leadership they need. The type of change we may be seeing in Nigeria.

  4. A collectors item of a true picture that is historical and current events that are in the veins more so those born after 1988 – youths are now a waiting time bomb given their idleness and vulnerability!

  5. The headline is quite misleading given the absence of reasoning around how East Africa is threatened. But that’s a minor objection – as always Dowden is spot on. What I would like to read is an analysis of the Kenyan government’s inability to listen to all these bright thinkers and basically anyone who comes up with proper solutions that goes beyond short term scapegoating. Please look into this – how come Kenyan politicians, quite often well educated people with access to analytical support, fails to do even basic things right when it comes to tackling these issues? By now most of us knows what kinds of problems Kenya is facing, how to deal with them, but it’s totally incomprehensible how they try to do everything wrong at each given moment. What on earth do they think they will achieve? In Garissa, both Christian and Moslem leaders agreed on two fundamental points. A) from now on, every Christian is a target and every Moslem is a suspect and B) The Kenyan government is again walking straight into the al-Shabaab trap. I’d so much want an explanation to this behavior.

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