And the government’s reaction to the massacre follows America’s missteps
by PETER DÖRRIE
It all sounds awfully, horrifically familiar —four gunmen storm a public building, quickly kill the few under-equipped security guards and begin a rampage that leaves 148 people dead.
Police and paramilitary units take hours to arrive at the scene and hours more to neutralize the attackers.
This is what happened on April 2 at the university in Garissa, a town in eastern Kenya. But if you confuse the description for the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi on Sept. 12, 2013, you would be forgiven. Except for the number of victims — 64 people died at Westgate Mall — everything else followed the same script as in Garissa.
The Kenyan government reacted to all of these attacks in similar ways — frantically looking for scapegoats, avoiding any confession of responsibility for security lapses and pushing for useless or dangerous laws and security infrastructure.
As the Garissa attack resulted in the largest loss of life to terrorism in Kenya in two decades, it’s only fitting that the government’s reaction is also the most cynical and hyperbolic on record.
Perhaps most telling is the statement from Deputy Pres. William Ruto. A few days after the killings, Ruto — who is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity in connection with Kenya’s 2008 post-electoral violence — told a rally that he had asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to close the refugee camp of Dadaab.
Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp. For 20 years it has been home to as many as 400,000 Somalis who fled their country’s long civil war.
The camp has attracted Ruto’s ire because Al Shabaab, an Islamist insurgency and terror group operating out of Somalia, claimed credit for the Garissa attack. The Kenyan government claims that Al Shabaab is using Dadaab as a base and recruiting ground.
“We have asked the UNHCR to relocate the refugees in three months,” Ruto told the crowd. “We shall relocate them ourselves” if the U.N. does not comply, he added.
“The way America changed after 9/11 is the way Kenya will change after Garissa,” Ruto continued.
That could, of course, mean a lot of things. But based on the recent actions of his government and his remarks regarding Dadaab, Ruto wasn’t alluding to a sense of national solidarity. Instead, he plans to imitate the United States’, ahem, flexible approach to human and citizen rights in the name of an all-out war on terror.
UNHCR spokesperson Emmanuel Nyabera confirmed that his organization “had discussions” with the Kenyan government. “They are interested in having the camps closed and the people relocated,” Nyabera told War Is Boring.
Nyabera said that he understood Kenya’s security concerns, but insisted that the government “has to respect its legal obligations.” Repatriation could only happen voluntarily, he pointed out.
Besides, relocating the camp from its current position close to the Somali border would be a “big challenge,” Nyabera said.
In portraying the Dadaab camp as a security threat, Deputy Pres. Ruto and the Kenyan government are essentially building a strawman to distract from their own failures.
These failures began well before April 2. Several days before the attack, authorities allegedly received warnings that Al Shabaab would target education institutions in Garissa.
There have been several Al Shabaab operations around Garissa in recent years — and as the only higher education facility in eastern Kenya with a large number of Christian students, the university was a likely target.
Instead of substantially beefing up security, Ruto publicly denounced a U.K. travel warning for the eastern and coastal areas of Kenya the day before the attack.
Just like at Westgate Mall, it took the police and army hours to arrive at the scene and engage the terrorists. Despite Garissa being home to a police and army garrison, specialized units had to drive to the scene from Nairobi, more than five hours away. As a consequence, the siege of the campus continued for 15 hours.
Neither Deputy Pres. Ruto, nor Pres. Jomo Kenyatta gave more than scant mention in their first reaction to the Garissa massacre of Kenya’s ongoing military intervention in Somalia.
More than 3,500 Kenyan troops are currently serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia.
But the Kenyan presence in Somalia didn’t start out as a peacekeeping force. Instead, Kenyan troops invaded southern Somalia in October 2011, without any form of mandate from the African Union or the United Nations.
This unilateral move, which the Kenyan government justified by citing the abductions of two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab, has since played an important role in Al Shabaab’s own propaganda. Much of Al Shabaab’s activity — and its most murderous attacks on Kenyan soil — occurred after Kenya intervened in Somalia.
“Kenya is at war with Somalia,” an Al Shabab spokesperson said in a statement claiming responsibility for the Garissa attack. The spokesman said the attack was reprisal for atrocities committed by Kenyan forces against Somalis.
“These terrorists are not expressing a legitimate political aspiration, they are not killing in response to oppression or marginalization,” Kenyan president Kenyatta said.
He’s right—nothing can justify an act of terror like the one committed in Garissa. But claiming that the Kenyan government isn’t guilty of oppression or marginalization is disingenuous — and not only because of the ongoing court case against Kenyatta’s deputy Ruto.
“Following that attack, the government responded with a crackdown that targeted the ethnic Somali population within Nairobi, which was little more than an exercise in scapegoating and extortion,” wrote Patrick Gathara, a respected Kenyan political analyst.
“Similarly, Garissa itself, which is populated mainly by ethnic Somalis, has been the site for ‘security operations,’ the favored official euphemism for collective punishment, for well over half a century.”
Last year, the Institute for Security Studies surveyed Kenyan members of Al Shabaab and the Mombasa Republic Council — another radical group — asking them what motivated them to sign up. The majority cited abuse by Kenyan security forces. Others mentioned collective punishment and Kenya’s counter-terrorism strategy.
It’s worth noting that at least one of the attackers killed in Garissa was actually Kenyan — and one of the alleged supporters apprehended by security forces hails from Tanzania, Kenya’s southern neighbor.
Instead of targeting refugees and ethnic Somalis, Kenya’s government would do well to reassess its involvement in Somalia and its relationship with the Somali community in Kenya, many members of which are Kenyan citizens.
Kenyatta and Ruto could also do worse than to reform their security forces. Corruption and incompetence has played a big part in allowing attacks like Garissa to happen.
Instead, Kenya’s government clings to its failed strategy. Kenyans united in their grief for the 148 victims of the attack and the world should stand with them.
But both Kenyans and the world should also demand that the Kenyan government do better.