Kenya grieves for 148 lives gone too soon. My country is in shock at the cold-blooded murder of young students in their hostels and lecture halls at Garissa University College. Garissa is the place where I grew up and after Thursday’s gruesome attack, life will never be the same again.
The scale of the dawn attack – Kenya’s deadliest since the 1998 bombing of the United States embassy, which killed 213 – became clear as survivors fled the buildings during the course of the day. Gunmen held hostage dozens of students and employees of the college for close to 15 hours.
By nightfall the government confirmed that 148 had died, and that the siege was over. Retrieving the bodies from the university buildings started only after that.
Accounts from residents and eyewitnesses to the attack suggest that the four gunmen had all the time they needed as security forces failed to respond quickly.
Kenyans are asking themselves many questions. Key among them: Could the attack have been avoided?
Many see it as a failure of not just intelligence, but also a result of the security forces’ slow response. “Why did the entire siege last for close to 15 hours?” they ask.
Government officials say they had intelligence that al-Shabab was planning an attack on a university. Why did they then forget all about the only university in the region where majority of the group’s attacks have happened?
Garissa University College has the single largest non-Somali population in any one place in the entire region. Its more than 800 students are from all corners of Kenya. It should have been better protected.
The government ought to have learnt its lessons from the more than 100 attacks al-Shabab carried out in Kenya since October 2011. Yet it seemingly hasn’t.
Kenya sent its troops into Somalia in 2011 to fight the armed group, which it blamed for a string of kidnappings that had affected tourism in the country.
But the northeastern part of the country has not been adequately protected, with the region’s small non-Somali population there often paying the heaviest price.
No sooner had Kenyan tanks, troops, trucks rolled into Somalia than al-Shabab launched a string of attacks in Kenya. It called them a revenge for Kenya’s military operations in Somalia.
As al-Shabab continues to lose ground in Somalia, its attacks inside Kenya are becoming more brazen, frequent and gory.
The group seems to have found in Kenya the perfect ground to advance its ideology of violence and bloodshed. It has established within the country sleeper cells mainly made up of young radicalised Kenyan youth, whom it’s using for such attacks. This, of course, helps it to show al-Qaeda, to which it is affiliated and which is a key source of finances, that it still is a force to reckon with despite its losses in Somalia.
The ease with which al-Shabab has managed to get a foothold in the country has baffled many, but not the keen observer.
Kenya’s Muslim community, which accounts for about 11 percent of the population and lives mainly in the northeastern and coastal parts of the country, has long claimed political and economic discrimination by successive Kenyan governments.
The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) – an independent transitional justice organisation created in 2008 to retrospectively investigate human rights violations and historical injustices in Kenya since independence – found that the country’s Muslim community faced institutional political, social, and economic discrimination.
Predominantly Muslim-inhabited areas were also found to be lagging behind in development due to an overt lack of both private and public investment.
The government’s reaction to the string of attack by al-Shabab did not help matters either. Kenya’s Muslims, particularly those in the Somali-inhabited northeast region, faced various human rights abuses by security agencies, particularly the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU).
According to Human Rights Watch’s report – Kenya: Killings, Disappearances by Anti-Terror Police – Kenyan Muslims were subject to abuses by the ATPU, including extortion, harassment and arbitrary detention.
The ATPU, the rights group said, was reportedly involved in the extrajudicial killings of suspected al-Shabab operatives and sympathisers.
To the ethnic Somali population in northeastern Kenya, there is nothing new in these actions.
The Kenyan security forces have often reacted to incidents of insecurity with one policy – collectively punishing the region’s inhabitants for the crimes of a few.
The most heinous of pogroms carried out in the region – among them the Garissa massacre of 1980 and the 1984 Wagalla massacre in Wajir – were a result government’s efforts to deal with banditry and clan conflicts.
In just the Wagalla airstrip outside Wajir town an estimated 1,000 people were shot dead or burnt alive by security officials on an operation to stop clan conflict.
As a result of decades of marginalisation, northeastern Kenya – as well as parts of the coastal region – lacks basic services such as paved roads, schools and hospitals. These regions suffer from poverty, high youth unemployment, rapid population growth and general insecurity.
Resentment towards the government is high and radicals are able to exploit these factors. Chronic youth unemployment, for example, makes al-Shabab’s promise of some income attractive.
Some recent government actions in the region have not been helpful either.
In an effort to shore up support for a would-be government in Kismayu-Somalia – one aimed at administering a buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia – Kenya recruited young Kenyan-Somalis to bolster the ranks of a Somali militia allied to it.
Some of these young men were picked from Garissa and Wajir towns in the region and trained at the Kenya Wildlife Service training college in Manyani at the coast before being sent to Somalia.
It’s believed that some of these young men ended up with al-Shabab and could be part of the gangs being used to wage war in Kenya.
An audit into where these young men are and whether all of them can be accounted for might prove useful.
To win the war against al-Shabab, analysts say, Kenya will have to re-think its approaches to fighting insecurity and its relations with its ethnic Somali community and Muslim population.
It’s only when the community is made to feel part and parcel of mainstream Kenya and used as the first line of defence that favourable results might be achieved.