Kenya’s terror pain — between a rock and a hard place

As students at the University of Cape Town held a vigil on Monday for people killed in an attack on a college in northeastern Kenya last week, it was a poignant show of solidarity for a phenomenon that has now undeniably taken root in sub-Saharan Africa.

The horror April 2 massacre of students at Garissa, some 150 kilometres north-east of the capital Nairobi, left some 148 people dead, all but six of them students, sparking a wave of international revulsion even in a world seemingly inured to extremist violence.

The United Nations, United States and the European Union were among those who joined regional governments such as Ethiopia, South Africa and Nigeria in condemning the attack described by a shaken Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta as a “barbaric medieval slaughter”.


But in Kenya, after the initial shock and disbelief, the hard questions are being asked, leaving an edgy government grasping at straws to defend what is increasingly seen as an unacceptable response to the Garissa attack.

Kenya has lost at least 450 people to several terrorist attacks since its soldiers crossed into Somalia in October 2011, following repeated incursions into its territory by al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that claimed the attack.

The most high-profile strike in that period had been the four-day siege of the upscale Westgate supermarket in September 2013, in which at least 67 people were killed in an attack claimed by the al-Qaeda-linked militants.

State failings
But the latest attack, the worst since the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in which 213 people died, appears to have for the first time sharply focused the debate on the failings of the state.

Anger has simmered following revelations that the first aircraft into Garissa from Nairobi carried top officials, with the elite commando unit that eventually neutralised the four terrorists arriving only seven hours later, beaten even by Nairobi-based journalists.

There are no special forces based in Garissa, a legacy of the colonial system that concentrated itself on protecting Nairobi, the country’s seat of power.

While there had been intelligence warnings of possible attacks on colleges, and at least two universities took measures to bulk up their security, only the United Kingdom government fingered Garissa as a possible target.

But just a day before, Kenyatta had rounded on the UK for its continued travel advisories, which hurt Kenya’s crucial billion-dollar tourism industry.

The prevailing sentiment has been of a government out of touch with the security challenges of the country, views echoed by demonstrators who on Tuesday took to Nairobi streets in protest, demanding greater national security.

The country’s media has also faulted the security establishment for learning little from the Westgate massacre. “It … beggars belief that many of the failures that were witnessed during the Westgate siege including the late deployment of specialised police were repeated in Garissa,” the leading Daily Nation newspaper wrote at the weekend.

‘Adequate’ response
Stung, the government has furiously sought to push back on the criticism, blaming both bureaucracy and damningly for its own public relations, the element of surprise in the attack.

Foreign minister Amina Mohamed on Monday in a globally broadast interview said the government’s response had been “adequate” in context of the resources it had.

And after Kenyatta promised retaliation in “the severest way possible”, Kenyan fighter jets bombed al-Shabab camps in southern Somalia, the latest of numerous such sorties made since 2011.

The country is part of a five-nation offensive African Union peacekeeping mission, members of which have all been targeted in previous al-Shabab cross-border attacks.

But Kenya, which was responsible for the battlefield loss of the port city of Kismayo that most weakened the group, has borne the brunt of retaliatory attacks.

A significant challenge is that it is home to a significant Somalia population, estimated at two million or 6% of the population, many of whom have been successfully radicalised as they seek to have their needs fulfilled, whether of seeking revenge, recognition, an identity or just the thrill.

In addition, non-Somali Kenyans have also been identified as members of the group, further signalling a long road ahead.

Kenyatta admitted it was a huge ask. “Our task of countering terrorism has been made all the more difficult by the fact that the planners and financiers of this brutality are deeply embedded in our communities,” he said on Saturday.

“Radicalisation that breeds terrorism is not conducted in the bush at night. It occurs in the full glare of day, in madrasas, in homes, and in mosques with rogue imams.”

The Garissa attack also turned some long-held assumptions about terrorism in the country on their head. The common assumption is that terrorism is attractive to poor, socially excluded, angry young men.

But one the gunmen was a law student at the country’s premier public institution of higher learning, the University of Nairobi. Just 24, he was described as an “A” student with a sharp legal mind and a love for bespoke suits. He was also the son of a county chief, who reported him as missing in 2013, and at ease in middle-class Nairobi.

The unsaid exit plan for Kenya from Somalia has also been the creation of a buffer zone along the border. Yet the identified mastermind of the Garissa attack is said to be an ally of Kenya’s principle partner in southern Somalia, raising the question of just how intractable the threat could be, and if Kenya really knows its friends.

But analysts, who blame the country’s continued vulnerability on lack of political will, also say the answer to the terror nightmare has been with Kenya all through.

“We have a plethora of policies, a legislative framework that has been done along with a government commitment to reform, which consistently have never been implemented,” Ndung’u Wainaina, the executive director of the Nairobi-based International Center for Policy and Conflict, told Bloomberg News.

Missed opportunities
The country has missed at least three major opportunities in the past 10 years to overhaul its security apparatus and is now paying for it, he said.

Dusting off the numerous reports may be the long-term solution, as opposed to existing plans, such as the announced building a wall along Kenya’s 682-kilometre border with Somalia. The entire wall would cost up to $17-billion, or a third of Kenya’s gross domestic product.

The current terror attacks are yet to become a direct political threat to Kenyatta in Kenya’s ethnic-driven politics, but they are beginning to hurt the economy, as the country’s risk profile takes a hit and markets begin to react.

There are also concerns that counter-terrorism will only lead to the creation of an imperial presidency, identified with Kenyatta’s father Jomo, who was the country’s first post-independence leader.

But Kenyatta, who cannot, despite growing internal pressure, order a retreat for geopolitical reasons, may take cold comfort that the targeting of soft targets by al-Shabab highlight the group’s weakened strength following months of territorial losses.

US President Barack Obama will also visit in July, where he will predictably urge him on the strength of further funding, to stay the course—Shabaab have in recent months successfully recruited diaspora Somalis in the US.

But for grieving parents of the Garissa massacre, all this means little.

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