In the wake of the tragic massacre of university students in Garissa by members of al-Shabaab, the Kenyan government has vowed to step up security and retaliate. In a televised address to the nation on Saturday, President Kenyatta promised to respond “in the severest ways possible.” He also stirred up anti-Somali and anti-Muslim sentiments by suggesting that the “planners and financiers” of such attacks were “deeply embedded in our communities.”
Since the first major attack on Kenyan soil by al-Shabaab in 2013, Kenyan officials have made commitments to tighten the country’s borders, root out terrorists amongst the Muslim and Somali population, and hit al-Shabaab hard. Yet the security situation in Kenya has only deteriorated since Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011 and many Muslims and Somalis living in Kenya have experienced an erosion of their civil rights as a result.
More and more scholars and activists from both inside and outside of Kenya are challenging the logic of securitization and militarization. Below is a compilation of insights and proposals by various scholars, activists, journalists, and commentators:
Implementing effective, rather than heavy-handed and discriminatory, security measures:
The Kenyan government has responded to the recent string of attacks through ethnic profiling, indiscriminate arrests, unlawful deportations of Somali refugees, and extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch has accused Kenya’s Anti-Terrorism Police Unit of carrying out “enforced disappearances” and assassinations of suspected terrorists and Muslim clerics. Critics have pointed out that such actions are not only violations of international law, but are also ineffective security measures. Edith Honan writes that: “Kenya’s heavy-handed approach in trying to tackle al Shabaab,” which includes “indiscriminate mass arrests of the Somali population plays into the radicals’ hands and fuels resentment among Muslims.” Mohammed Adow, an al Jazeera correspondant from Garissa whose family members have been victims of Kenyan security operations, argues that such measures only lend further legitimacy to al-Shabaab. He also suggests that Somalis living in Kenya are often too fearful of Kenyan police to come forward to report suspicious activity.
Involving Kenyan Somalis in security operations and intelligence gathering:
According to Adow and other Somali spokespeople, the best way for the Kenyan government to combat terrorism is to enlist and win the support of the Kenyan Somali community. Some security analysts have echoed these sentiments. According to Mwenda Kailemia, a lecturer in criminology at Keele University, Kenyan policy makers must profoundly rethink their approach to Somalia. Rather than scale up “heavy expenditure on ‘force multipliers,” such as tanks and aircrafts, the Kenyan government should instead develop “rapidly deployable cells of Muslim or Somali-speaking infantry with a broad mandate to intervene against breaches of the country’s security laws.” Kailemia also suggests that the government should treat the political and economic marginalization of Muslim citizens, particularly those living in North Eastern Kenya, as a security issue. Addressing the causes of Muslim alienation as well as decentralizing security operations may help to prevent future attacks, like that of Garissa.
Ending the military occupation of Somalia:
When the Kenyan government invaded Somalia at the end of 2011, a group of Kenyan writers and public intellectuals wrote a prescient letter of opposition to the military incursion: “We will kill some Somalis and call them Al-Shabaab. We will all feel very Kenyan indeed….All of us are paying already for this bout of blood-thirst. We will go on paying, for many years to come.” See the full statement here. The authors of this petition not only maintain that the Kenyan government lacked legitimate cause for entering into Somalia (despite ostensible claims to be securing its borders), but also warn that the invasion will only lead to a “rapidly deteriorating security situation,” a “shattered relationship with our neighbours,” and “a national amnesia” towards pressing issues of social justice within Kenya. Of the Somalis and Muslims who sympathize with al-Shabaab, many do so because they perceive Kenya to be an occupying force.
Negotiating with al-Shabaab:
Perhaps the most radical suggestion was one recently proposed by Aden Bare Duale, the majority leader of the Kenyan National Assembly, who implied that it may be time that Kenya negotiate with al-Shabaab. Afyare Abdi Elmi and Abdi Aynte, writing in Foreign Affairs, note that: “It has long been known that some senior figures of al Shabaab…would consider negotiating with the [Somali] government.” Al-Shabaab’s shocking violence should not foreclose a careful assessment of the political possibilities of diplomacy (or blind us to the violence that has been committed by other factions in this more than two-decades long conflict). If the protracted war in Somalia can teach us any lesson, it is that further military intervention tends only to breed more extremist violence by various (Muslim and non-Muslim) factions. As scholars and journalists such as Roland Marchal, Abdi Samatar, and Jeremy Scahill have argued, the U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 enabled al-Shabaab—once a small faction in the diverse, ICU coalition—to re-make itself into a major player in southern Somalia. Time and time again, military intervention in lieu of diplomacy has set the region on a path towards greater insecurity, political corruption, and violence.
Changing the narrative about terrorism:
Africa Is a Country has helped call attention to CNN’s shoddy reporting of African current events. During its coverage of the Garissa attack, CNN confused Kenya with Nigeria and couldn’t accurately locate Tanzania on a map. Such geographic illiteracy does not speak well of the American media’s ability to cover sensitive, complex, and rapidly changing political events on the continent. It is, however, a telling indication of the mainstream media’s ignorance about Africa as well as its tendency to conflate highly disparate and loosely related attacks–which are typically explained through reference to essentialized ideas about “Islamic radicalism.”
Often these accounts reflect a fear, not of violence per se, but of violence conducted by non-state actors who operate outside the boundaries of the nation-state and the international norms of secularism. At the same time, these popular media narratives tend to mask the violence committed by other actors in the ongoing war in southern Somalia.
As I wrote in a previous post: “All of us (but particularly those of us living in the US) must consider the power that ‘terrorism’ holds over our imagination and the ways in which the post-9/11 political climate has shaped our understanding of dispersed, loosely related events across the world. Constructing the ‘terrorist’ as some kind of spectacular, yet elusive criminal serves, more often than not, to confirm our prejudices, rather than invite a nuanced reading of events. The seductively easy abstractions and narratives provided by the global war on terror may serve as a substitute for an analysis of complex and confusing conflicts, but they can also prevent us from gaining a better understanding of the sources and causes of violence. They also inhibit us from recognizing that, in many cases, assigning blame and agency is a fraught, difficult, and highly political act.”