Why Kenya can’t contain the al Shabaab threat

AFP I Students mourn after al Shabaab militants waged a massacre in Garissa on April 2.

Almost 150 people, mostly students, were massacred on a college campus in Garissa, Kenya by Somali jihadists on Thursday, April 2. Kenya is no stranger to al Shabaab attacks, yet it seems unable to contain ongoing terror threats.


In April 2014, Garissa township MP Aden Duale was accused of being a sympathizer of terrorism for criticizing ongoing anti-terror operations led by the Kenyan government. Duale had condemned sweeping raids in Nairobi that resulted in the targeted arrests of thousands of ethnic Somalis, claiming that many innocent people were ethnically profiled (children were among those arrested). 

A year later, a college campus in Garissa was targeted by al Shabaab extremists as a site for mass murder. Duale was tragically correct  Kenya’s anti-terrorism measures have repeatedly failed. Moreover, following the Garissa massacre, it became clear that there was intelligence that an attack, and probably one on an educational institution, was imminent.

On Friday, Kenya’s Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery issued a statement while standing in front of a campus still littered with the sprawled bodies of murdered youths.

"The government is determined to fight back the terrorists, and I am confident we shall win this war against our enemies," Nkaissery said. Five people have been arrested in connection with the Garissa attack, CNN reported late Friday, citing the Interior Minister.

Nkaissery's confidence, however, is not shared by all Kenyans.

Cracking down to fight terror

Kenyan troops have been fighting al Shabaab in Somalia since 2011 as part of the African Union force supporting the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu.

Al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage declared that the Garissa bloodbath was waged in revenge for this troop presence. Similar claims were made after previous attacks, including the slaughter of Kenyan quarry workers last December, the murder of almost 30 Kenyan Christians on a bus in November, and the brutal attack at the upscale Westgate shopping mall in 2013, which left at least 67 people dead.

“The first thing the Kenyan government needs to do is get out of Somalia,” said local politican Pollyne Owoko, a former elected official of Nakuru county. “We have such little means and, if we can’t deal with al Shabaab in our country, why are we fighting them in Somalia?”

In December 2014, the Kenyan government passed a highly controversial anti-terror law (so controversial, in fact, that several MPs came to blows over it). The law was condemned by human rights organisations and the United States, Britain, Germany and France released a rare collective statement saying: "It is important that the legislation, while strengthening security, respects human rights and international obligations.”

In January 2015, Kenya's high court threw out eight key clauses, including those restricting media freedom and quotas on refugees. The government said it would consider an appeal.

Externally focused

The original anti-terror law cut the number of Somali refugees allowed into the country from 500,000 to 150,000 and restricted them to two refugee camps, which violated international law, according to Human Rights Watch.

Recently, the Kenyan government had another idea to fight the terror perceived to be streaming across the admittedly porous border: why not build a wall to cover all 424 miles of it? Never mind that the border touches the ocean and, as researcher James Mosley said, “As if those who wanted to cross couldn’t just take a boat!”

Mosley, a Chatham House fellow and expert in security in the African Great Lakes region, said these policy choices reflect one of the main problems with Kenya’s anti-terrorism policy: it’s too externally focused.

“The government immediately says that anyone who commits an act within Kenya is a Somali or a foreign agent of a radical Islamist; the government does not address local grievances that could drive people to extremism,” said Mosley. “That undermines [its] ability to deal with domestic security challenges. Being Muslim is not the reason Kenyans become militants, it just so happens that Muslim minorities in Kenya are among the groups marginalised.”

Post-election violence in 2007-2008, during which around a thousand people died, is just one example of pervasive tensions in Kenya, many stemming from colonial era injustices that were not rectified by the post-colonial government. Mosely isn’t the only one who believes that the threat is a domestic one.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the Garissa attackers turned out to be Kenyan,” said politician Owoko.

Several witnesses told news agencies that they heard the gunman speaking in Swahili, an official language in Kenya - supporting the possibility the attackers were locals and not from Somalia.

Devolution plan left out security

Kenya is a vast land mass and, even under the best circumstances (if, for example, endemic corruption was not a problem), assuring its security is a difficult task.

In 2010, the country underwent a series of political reforms including devolution of power. Many federal roles were delegated to regional governments and the elected governor. Other powers, including security, remained centralised. Currently, the security of each region is under the control of the district commissioner, a position that is appointed, not elected. The commissioner often comes from a different region and is accountable to superiors in Nairobi, not local people.

Mosely says this system creates a disconnect between needs on the ground and government policies.

“The key is more local awareness and empowerment,” said Mosley. “The discussion should be shifted to how to make the response more in tune with local security concerns.”

However, Owoko said that there have been intense debates around the idea of devolving security, with some worried that this could make oversight more difficult and facilitate abuse of power.

Lack of funds and forces

There are also massive shortages of police and equipment, a problem frequently linked to corruption, graft and corresponding poor management. In Garissa, students told FRANCE 24 that there were only two guards on campus.

According to an Associated Press report from March 2014, the operating budget of an anti-terror police unit in Nairobi was $735 per month. In comparison, parliamentary representatives earn approximately $15,000 per month.

Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko actually purchased security vehicles that he loans to police when they find themselves in need of back-up.

“Police are underpaid and unmotivated,” said Owoko. “Their salaries are about $200 a month. Is that someone who is going to take care of me?”

President Uhuru Kenyatta said Thursday that "urgent" steps must be made to complete the recruitment of 10,000 new police officers -- a process stalled last August amid corruption claims.

Facing the future

The challenges in addressing the looming threat of more attacks are huge, especially considering the current “mess,” as Owoko described it.

“Security in Kenya is like a huge elephant in the room," she said. "You want to move it but you have no idea if you should start because everything is a big, heavy mess. Personnel? We don’t have enough. Our police equipment is out of date... we need to upgrade. We cannot deal with Al Shabaab in our own country and we can’t deal with them abroad. We can’t improve lives of Kenyans and so they are looking to groups like Al Shabaab [who are] willing to pay them. The politicians are all clamouring in different voices.”

She did have one hope, however: the threat will pressure politicians to start addressing these issues.

“[Former Nigerian President] Goodluck Jonathan lost the election because he could not deal with the insecurity in the country. Elections in Kenya are coming in two and a half years and politicians know that we will not keep them in power if the situation continues. We can’t live like this.”

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