Senseless [and sensible] violence: Mourning the dead at Westgate Mall

Placing these tragic events in a wider context, suggests a need to reassess the ‘war on terror’ in the horn of Africa.

"For proponents of the War on Terror, even if lethal, the Westgate massacre is a dying kick from a spent group. It is a closing act in the victory of sensible over senseless violence," writes Professor Mamdani [Reuters]

Soon after the wires began broadcasting the death toll at Westgate Mall, messages began to trickle in from well-meaning groups, declaring outrage at this act of ‘senseless violence.’  The implication is that there is another kind of violence, not only different but also sensible.  Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s pledge to up his contribution to the War on Terror should be seen in light of this distinction.

For most people, the Somali saga begins with an episode commemorated in the Hollywood blockbuster, Black Hawk Down. The televised killing and humiliation of a handful of US marines by members of a warlord’s ragtag militia led to the withdrawal of US forces from the country. For the next decade, rival warlords contended over Somali territory. Then came the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition that not only pledged to restore law and order in the country, but actually managed to do so. Faced with clan-based mobilisation by warlords, the Union of Courts mobilised the same Somalis along religious lines that cut across clan allegiances. 

The US saw this development differently, alarmed that the law the Union of Courts restored was not any law but sharia, the law of Islam.  It did not matter that this was more a version of local custom which local people seemed to welcome and herald as the harbinger of peaceful times. Blind to its local resonance, the US saw the Union of Islamic Courts as nothing but an Al Qaeda conspiracy, a threat to international peace.  In the years that followed, it put together and backed a coalition of warlords, aptly titled Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT).  

When this alliance was defeated following a series of skirmishes with the Islamic Courts Union, the US looked for another proxy. The second phase of indirect US involvement in Somalia began as Ethiopian forces moved into Somalia and easily toppled the Union of Islamic Courts – with full US political and military backing.  

That victory, hardly seven years ago, turned out to be the moment of birth of al Shabab, meaning youth in Somali.  Growing out of the previously unheralded youth wing of the Union of Islamic Courts, these young fighters graduated from local peacekeeping to guerrilla war.  When they took the war to the Ethiopians, the latter grew wary of the guerrilla conflict and withdrew.

This was the backdrop to the entry of African Union (mainly Ugandan and Burundi) forces and, later, that of forces from Kenya – ushering in the third phase of indirect US involvement.  By 2010, al Shabab, a mix of local and foreign fighters, the latter with al Qaeda connections, was in control of much of central and south Somalia. At the same time, al Shabab was involved in a costly urban turf war in Mogadishu. But then came the devastating drought and famine.  

The turning point came when al Shabab opposed foreign aid for the drought stricken, and the population turned against it.  A year later, al Shabab was forced to conduct a ‘tactical retreat’ from Mogadishu. Soon after, Kenyan forces, allied with a former warlord, Ahmed Madobe, took control of the southern port city of Kismayo.  

More a loose coalition of groups than a centralised tightly knit organisation, al Shabab still remains divided between Somali nationalists for whom the jihad is more of a local affair and international jihadists. The latter first showed their mattel in Kampala on the night of the 2010 World Cup, killing over 70, and have now struck in Westgate Mall in Nairobi.  

For proponents of the War on Terror, even if lethal, the Westgate massacre is a dying kick from a spent group. It is a closing act in the victory of sensible over senseless violence. That victory is military.  

But military victory can not be the end of the story. That the Somali problem is more political than military is likely to become even more clear in the wake of a military victory. Will a military victory lead to political stabilisation or will it turn out to be but the latest round in an ongoing cycle of violence?  

This question should prompt others and call for a deeper reflection on the nature of political violence in the region. Is there a link between senseless and sensible violence? Has so-called sensible violence fed the cycle of violence, as much as has the senseless kind? Should not sensible people look for a way out of that cycle of violence?

For those interested in working through these questions, it is worth looking at other African conflicts, the nearest to home being the violence that plagued Uganda after the fall of the Amin regime.  NRA’s great claim to leadership in Uganda was that it brought political stability to the country after 1986. Key to it was a political strategy called ‘the broad base.’  

Prioritising political over military strategy, the broad base was a call to all rival forces to enter into a national political bargain: to share in the power without giving up one’s objectives or organisational identity, but in return to replace the commitment to armed struggle with a political engagement. As yesterday’s enemies became today’s adversaries, even close lieutenants of Idi Amin became members of the Museveni cabinet.  

Need I ask: Is there a lesson here for regional powers with forces in Somalia?

Mahmood Mamdani is the Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), the Herbert Lehman Professor of Government at the School of International and Public Affairs and the Professor of Anthropology, Political Science and African Studies at Columbia University.