By now most people will have seen the tragic news flowing out of Nairobi. One of Kenya’s capital’s large malls was attacked and taken over by a group of gunmen. Yesterday’s news was full of images of Kenyans and expatriates fleeing the mall, many of them injured, all of them terrified. The latest reports indicate that at least 59 people have been killed. The gunmen are holding a position in the mall, together with civilians who seem to be hostages. Earlier this morning, following a press update and address by the President and other national leaders, commandos were said to be storming the mall.
The country has experienced other attacks in recent years, mostly consisting of grenades lobbed into matatu stages, nightclubs, churches, or shop fronts, but the attack on the Westgate Mall, in an affluent neighbourhood, which has killed not only Kenyans (including the President’s nephew and his fiancée), but also many foreigners (including diplomats and members of the continent’s literary elite), is being interpreted as marking something new for a grief-stricken nation to grapple with. For the time being, Nairobians and Kenyans are helping the injured and flocking to blood donor stations, but how the city and nation interpret and act on the merciless attack will be important in the days and weeks to come.
The attack is widely assumed to be the work of Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia (and indeed, Al Shabab has taken “credit” for the attack). Kenya’s northern neighbour has posed security, administrative, and social dilemmas for the country since it gained its independence from Britain in 1963. The vast Northern Frontier District constituted an enormous and sparsely-populated swathe of northern and eastern Kenya, including the border regions with Somalia. The irredentist Somali government made claims to the region and its Somali inhabitants, who largely favoured incorporation into a greater Somali state (Somalia fought a war against Ethiopia over a similar claim in the Ogaden).
The Kenyan government, fearful that ceding territory to Somalia would encourage regional strife in a nation which emerged from an anti-colonial war badly-strained and little resembling a unified nation, refused to contemplate such a measure. The result was a four-year insurgency in which the Kenyan government, aided by the British, put down Somali insurgents (labelled shifta) and drove the Somali government’s forces from the country. This was not pleasantly done. Game Scouts and police of Somali heritage serving the Kenyan state were stripped of their weapons and either sacked or sent to other parts of the colony, a vote of no-confidence in the ethnic group by the state which claimed to represent it.* The Kenyan security forces also used the methods of the colonial government, and interned Somalis in model villages, simultaneously launching the same kind of “rehabilitation” programmes that had been directed at anti-colonial fighters during the Mau Mau liberation struggle of the 1950s.
The successors of the Northern Frontier District—until recently largely represented by the North Eastern province, and today constituting Mandera, Wajir and Garissa Provinces—represented a porous security and administrative risk to the Kenyan state as Somalia disintegrated in the 1990s. The Kenyan government has long been rumoured to favour the creation of a buffer zone along the border, and in late 2011, following heightened activity by Al Shabab in the border regions, and massing of refugees on the border, the Kenyan military launched a full-blown invasion of southern Somalia, a move made in support of African Union operations and those of the internationally-recognised but territorially-marginalised Somali government.
The invasion was largely greeted enthusiastically by the Kenyan public and commentariat, which had long bemoaned the government’s failure to bring the troubled region under control, and worried about who was entering Kenya unaccounted for. In the early days, blow-by-blow reports of the Kenyan forces’ advance appeared in the papers, and the war was waged with as much vigour on twitter (with the Kenyan military spokesman squaring off against his Al Shabab counterpart) as on the ground, where allegations of atrocities by both sides quickly emerged. Soon after, the bombings began in Kenya, some in the border regions, but others in Mombasa and Nairobi. It is now a matter of routine to have your bags and person screened when entering even comparatively small establishments of any kind in Nairobi, and security guards abound, giving the otherwise very friendly and cosmopolitan-feeling city a slightly surreal feel.
The war in Somalia and the bombings in Kenya have sparked a backlash against Somalis in Kenya, some of whom are refugees, while others have lived in the country for generations. As they were in the 1960s during what was known as the “Shifta War”, Somalis have been harassed in a fairly indiscriminate fashion, and many otherwise open-minded Kenyans are much less tolerant when it comes to the “Somali problem”. It is widely assumed that organised crime and financial networks operate in the capital, perhaps aiding Al Shabab or loosely-affiliated malcontents.
This afternoon in Nairobi President Uhuru Kenyatta and former-Prime Minister Raila Odinga—bitter opponents during the election earlier this year (and sons of the country’s two towering figures after independence)—made a show of unity with cabinet members and representatives of Kenya’s ethnic and religious communities. Both spoke of the importance of diversity to Kenya’s national story, the need for a unified national response, and decried the Al Shabab criminals’ efforts to divide Kenyans against one another (gunmen reportedly ordered Muslims to leave Westgate, while shooting down those who couldn’t prove their religious bonafides in cold blood). They sounded calm and measured, and if their message prevails, it sounds as though the government will be considered in its response.
But there were more calculating elements to the arguments of Kenya’s leaders. They sought to portray terrorism as a universal, global phenomenon, almost a condition facing the world’s nations. They urged other nations not to issue travel bans or warnings which they said would harm the country’s tourism sector and economy. And they pleaded for help from the world in fighting terrorism (indeed, it has been rumoured that the large-scale assault underway at Westgate now is being aided by British and Israeli advisors or operatives).
But the people and nations of the world should be wary of stepping forward to turn their nations into battlegrounds in some ethereal War on Terror, which as the U.S. experience shows, inevitably morphs into a War of Terror. To be sure, organisations like Al Qaeda have managed to create a global climate of fear, and provide moral and material support to other groups, but affiliates like Al Shabab have much more parochial ambitions, something which is ultimately true of virtually all “terrorist” groups. In treating local criminal groups as part of a global terrorist network, governments risk creating connections where none previously existed. They risk engineering a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I certainly hope that other nations help Kenya and the victims of the terrible attack in Nairobi, the full damage of which will not be known for some time. But in the rush to respond to violence which feels inexplicable to Nairobi’s citizenry, we should also resist the temptation to ignore such criminality’s local origins, and to differentiate the perpetrators of such violence from the communities they claim to represent (something the gunmen in Nairobi conspicuously failed to do in carrying out what they called “revenge” for the actions of Kenya’s military in Somalia).
Kenya should be wary of using its need for sympathy and support at a moment of national grieving to further embroil itself in a global war of terror which has brought little in the way of security or comfort to the nations waging it.
* Kenya National Archives. KW 1/15. All Staff Matters, 1962 to 1967. Box 2, Shelf 5798.