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Opinion

The Nairobi massacre and the genealogy of the tragedy

Years of Kenyan intervention in southern Somalia tragically culminated in the Westgate bloodbath, Samatar writes.

Last Modified: 26 Sep 2013 11:15
Abdi Ismail Samatar

Abdi Ismail Samatar is professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a fellow at the University of Pretoria.
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Kenyan forces moved into the Somali port city of Kismayo after al-Shabab fighters left in 2012 [AFP]

All people of goodwill and of all faiths must condemn al-Shabab for its gruesome deed at Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. No one serious enough about their creator can butcher innocent people as was done in Westgate earlier this week. These culprits are indeed faithless and must be brought to justice.

As traumatic as the Westgate tragedy is, it must teach thoughtful Kenyans and others that the largest number of victims of al-Shabab are not Kenyans, Ugandans, or others, but Somalis in Somalia. Al-shabab has imposed an incredible tyranny on the population and has disabled them from rebuilding their war-torn country. The international community, including Africans, have been not only oblivious to the plight of the Somali people, but have turned them into a disposable political football since the collapse of their state in 1991.

For over 16 years the world watched warlord terrorists rape, loot and kill Somalis with impunity. In some instances, members of the international community used the warlords as clients to affect their agenda in Somalia. For instance, the value of the Somali shilling against the US dollar appreciated significantly in late 2005 and early 2006 as the market in Mogadishu realised that there was a flood of dollars coming into the city. The source of these was American intelligence sources that supported some of the warlords against what later became known as the Union of the Islamic Courts (UIC).

First it was Ethiopia

The UIC defeated the warlords and created peace in Mogadishu for the first time in 16 years and without any help from the international community. Rather than engaging with the UIC, the US and its African clients considered them as terrorists and Ethiopia was given the green light to invade and dismantle it. Ethiopian forces took over Mogadishu on December 25, 2006, and the prospect of a peaceful resurrection of Somalia perished.

Kenya's behaviour in the Kismayo region and its involvement in undermining the Somali government have alienated most Somalis.

The brutality of the Ethiopian occupation has been documented by human rights groups. Resisting the Ethiopian occupation became the rallying cry for all Somalis. Some of the toughest challengers of the Ethiopian war machine were segments of the UIC militia known as al-Shabab. Their valour endeared them to many Somalis and this marked the birth of al-Shabab as we know it today. Had the international community and particularly the West productively engaged the UIC, I am confident that al-Shabab would have remained an insignificant element of a bigger nationalist movement.

What does Kenya have to do with the mess in Somalia to attract al-Shabab's wrath? The massacre of innocent people at Westgate is not the first time al-Shabab murdered people in public places in Kenya. I personally know one of the Kenyan MPs that al-Shabab tried to murder while he was consulting with members of his constituency in a mosque in the Somali enclave in Nairobi. Somalis and Kenyans agree that al-Shaab is a terrorist organisation which engages in heinous acts. What is also no longer debatable is that Kenya's military intervention in Somalia two years ago, and its occupation of parts of Southern Somalia, have give al-Shabab an excuse to export its terror.

Kenya's involvement

Kenya's original rationale for invading Somalia was to protect its citizens and tourist-based economy from al-Shabab's predations. For many this argument seemed reasonable as al-Shabab was accused of kidnapping several expatriates from Kenya. According to a US official who spoke on condition of anonymity, there were credible reports that the Kenyan government had planned on gaining a strong sphere of influence in the lower region of Somalia long before the al-Shabab-affiliated incidents.

Somalia's neighbouring states were prohibited from being members of the African Union military force (AMISOM) which was operating in Somalia, however, Kenya ignored this edict and sent it troops into the country. But as the cost of the occupation skyrocketed, Kenya sought financial help from friends but failed to gain enough resources to sustain the project. The war's financial strain compelled Kenya to join AMISOM.

Kenya's effort to crush al-Shabab and bring the so-called Jubaland region under its control has also been costly in terms of civilian displacements and deaths. It took Kenya over a year to wrest the Port of Kismayo from al-Shabab.

Although most Somalis welcomed the liberation of Kismayo from al-Shabab, they were dismayed that Kenya did not behave as other AMISOM forces in the country.

Somali government and particularly its top leadership should wake up to the fact that they have failed to inspire the Somali people and move them into massive civic mobilisation that will be the most effective defense against al-Shabab.

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First, Kenyan forces refused to allow the Somali government to take charge of the city, particularly the airport and the seaport.

Second, the Somali president sent a delegation to Kismayo to talk with the Kenyans and also assess the situation in the region. The Kenyan commander rebuffed the team and sent them back to Mogadishu straight from the airport.

Third, Rather than turning the region over to the Somali government and assisting it with securing the area, as other AMISOM forces have done elsewhere, Kenya has been empowering a warlord who now claims to be president of the region.

Finally, The regional organisation, IGAD, of which Kenya is an important member, met earlier this year and decided that the airport and seaport in Kismayo should be turned over to the Somali government. Kenya did not openly challenge the decision during the meeting but reneged on it after the conference.

Kenya's behaviour in the Kismayo region and its involvement in undermining the Somali government have alienated most Somalis. Furthermore, the regime in Mogadishu has very few resources and the capacity to force the Kenyan forces out of the country. The African Union and IGAD appear to have no desire to push Kenya to cede the region to the government in Mogadishu, and as the stalemate continues it has become another political distraction and a source of instability in the country.

Most Somalis originally thought Kenya had been a benign neighbour since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, but Somali feelings have hardened since the occupations and consider Kenya as a hostile government. Unfortunately, the terrorist group, al-Shabab, wants to exploit these legitimate Somali grievances against the government of Kenya. But most Somalis loathe what al-Shabab stands for and the atrocities it has visited on innocent people in Kenya, Somalia and others in the region.

Steps forward

Given this, what must then be done to turn this tragedy into a victory for Somalis and Kenyans?

First, all of us must tend to the injured and those families who lost their loved ones. Second, since al-Shabab's main operations base is in Somalia, and since it has inflicted the greatest damage to ordinary Somalis, the international community should understand that the terror group must be defeated in that country. To do so, the EU and the US who support AMISOM must appreciate that only a professional and well-resourced Somali security force will drive al-Shabab into the sea. Consequently, they can divert half of AMISOM's budget to this endeavor.

Third, Kenyan President Kenyatta and his government must heed legitimate Somali grievances against the occupation and urgently work with the Somali government and withdraw its troops from southern Somalia. Finally, the Somali government and particularly its top leadership should wake up to the fact that they have failed to inspire the Somali people and move them into massive civic mobilisation that will be the most effective defense against al-Shabab.

Such an engagement of the citizens will also be a fantastic boon for the cSomalia's reconstruction. If the international community and leadership in the region go back to business as usual then the victims of al-Shabab's terror will endure a second death. 

Abdi Ismali Samatar is a professor of geography at the University of Minnesota and a research Fellow at the University of Pretoria. He is also the President of the African Studies Association.

                                                                        

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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