Mwenda Kailemia writes: On Wednesday night, life was normal for the close to 800 students of a university college in the remote part of Kenya’s north east, which borders Somalia. And then, at dawn on Thursday, all hell broke lose: Masked gunmen stormed the fortified campus dormitories shooting indiscriminately at the fleeing students before taking several hundred hostages. The dawn-to-dusk siege ended when the four gunmen detonated their suicide vests, with a fifth arrested. The attack left at least 147 people dead, mostly students, with survivors afterward recounting how the militants singled out and executed Christians.
It is the deadliest attack yet by al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-affiliated Somali militant group, which declared war on Kenya after the country sent its troops into Somalia in 2011. In a similar attack in 2013, armed gunmen stormed the Westgate shopping complex in Nairobi, selectively killing Christians and taking many people hostage. By the time the guns fell silent three days later close to 70 people had been killed.
The attacks have raised fundamental questions about Kenya’s security strategy. Recent commentary has emphasised the toxic mix of corruption and the structural alienation of Kenya’s Muslim population. Immigration and police officials, it is argued, can be bought by the highest bidder. Recently there have been widely publicised accounts of how foreigners have managed to acquire Kenyan passports within a few weeks of sneaking into the country. This corruption has played into the hands of both al-Shabaab and the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), a secessionist outfit in the country’s coastal regions, with both capitalising on popular disenchantment of the Kenyan Muslim minority for their recruitment.
Following yesterday’s attacks, it took security services several hours to arrive at the site of the siege because of bad roads in the area. Neglect by successive administrations has ensured that Garissa, like most of Kenya’s north east, is part of Kenya by name only: before this week’s attack, the local leadership had given the government an ultimatum: either ensure security or allow locals to take up arms to defend themselves from threats that range from al-Shabaab attacks to cattle rustling and inter-clan warfare. Thus, while the story of Kenya’s struggle with terrorism has been dominated by images of urban sieges, the untold story – until yesterday anyway– was the insecurity and neglect that the people of north eastern Kenya have had to endure for decades. The country may have won international acclaim for major investments in infrastructure, but it is not lost on locals that the whole region bordering Somalia has less than 100 miles of tarmacked roads. [Continue reading…]