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Recent terror attacks in Nairobi have generated widespread xenophobic sentiment against the Somali community, both within the public and government circles. Resisting oppressive mechanisms, emphasis should be placed on social transformation that creates opportunities for the average Kenyan and reduces the recruitment appeal of terror networks.

Destitution and a government bureaucracy that is easy to manipulate make Kenya a prime space for global terrorism. First of all, it is crucial to appreciate that global terrorism is a business. It thrives on minimal ‘investments’ that promise maximum ‘return on investment.’ The 2001 terror attacks in New York and Washington DC produced public hysteria and dominated the 24/7 news cycle for many months after—with good reason. So too did the 2005 attacks in London and Madrid. All three events were highly symbolic acts of violence that catapulted their perpetrators into the global limelight. Whatever the cost of planning the operations, the returns in terms of media coverage and public fear were seemingly worth it. Nairobi’s recent explosions are part of a pattern that has been 16 years in the making. In 1998, both Nairobi and Dar es Salaam experienced terrorist attacks to their US embassies. Since then, Nairobi has suffered from repeated violence, not least of which was last year’s Westgate Mall saga. Other parts of the country have been targeted, particularly Wajir, Mandera, and Garissa in the North East; although the attacks make national headlines, they seem to go largely unnoticed.


As of 1 May 2014, the long-awaited April rains had not arrived in much of Kenya. Many regions are barely green, and have already entered the June-July weather cycle: low temperatures and low precipitation. This is Kenya’s typical ‘“winter”’ season; there are only slight showers meaning that the crops currently wilting in small-scale farms will have long dried before the long rains in September. The consequences will be exacerbated by food insecurity, hitting hardest in regions that already experience perennial droughts. As a result, we can expect sustained—if not increased—rural to urban migration as destitute Kenyans seek better opportunities in the country’s urban areas. An already high unemployment rate means that many of those who make these journeys will end up frustrated and even further impoverished. Environmental degradation has always hit the most disenfranchised hardest.


On the other hand as of 1 May, Ngong’—barely 30 km from Nairobi—had experienced a spate of armed robberies within the space of one week. There are reports of residents being attacked at 3am by gangs that break down metal doors, shoot into the air, and walk away with household goods, particularly electronics. When the police finally arrive at the scene of the crime, the line of questioning the detectives take up is highly indicative of the acrimonious relationship between the public and security forces: what kind of gun do you think was fired? Answering that question betrays your knowledge of firearms—grounds for immediate arrest. Call us next time they come, the cops say as they leave. From witness accounts, the invincibility with which burglars operate suggests either direct involvement of security personnel or at least police approval. It would not be the first time that police men and women have rented out their firearms, or uniforms, to burglars for a cut of the loot.

The extent to which Kenya’s police force can be compromised is legendary. Whether true or false, public perception is that the country’s security apparatus is up for grabs to the highest bidder. The Ministry of Immigration has already been implicated in the sale of identity cards and Kenyan passports to illegal immigrants. The country’s former minister for internal security, Prof. George Saitoti, and several other high-level government officials were killed in a helicopter crash that many allege was masterminded by drug barons.

There is an additional social challenge to resolving Kenya’s insecurity. As of 2013, a third of the approximately 1.2 million pupils who joined class 1 in 2006 did not finish their primary school education. Of the 800,000 students who successfully sat for their KCPE exams, 25% will not make it to high school - and the transition to tertiary education will sideline even more youths. Effectively, all these young people have been locked out of a Kenyan economy that is now intensely competitive, even for the thousands of Bachelor degree-holders. While a section of the country’s population experiences a higher and higher standard of living, these young folks and their families will be trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Let’s be honest; at the end of the day, we all seek the same things: to satisfy our basic needs and find meaning and purpose in our lives. We all desire to feel that we are making a difference and that our lives matter.


What Kenya has failed to do is offer opportunities for social mobility to ALL her citizens. Given the reach of global terrorism, it is worth assuming that at any one time, a section of the country’s young people are being offered a chance to escape poverty by involving themselves in terrorist activities. The ‘“business”’ of terrorism involves a variety of activities before the actual grenade can be hurled at a public vehicle. There is the acquisition of explosive materials and other firearms, choosing the target, transporting explosives from where they are assembled to the area under attack and other activities which any terrorist may have to ‘contract’ outsiders to perform. Many of those who aid terrorism do so unwittingly, but some do get involved because the projected returns are much better than the bleak future they face—given their socio-economic backgrounds, capacity to prepare for successful careers etc. It is vital that the small numbers who are offered such opportunities are able to turn them down, knowing they have a much better chance of succeeding elsewhere without getting involved in illegal activities.

Effectively, we should make the minimum investment associated with terrorism much higher. This will involve addressing many of the contemporary social welfare challenges, especially education and preparing young people to be professionals. The choice between a potential career as a tech-preneur and involvement in violence is a very different one than that between bleak subsistence farming in arid areas and involvement in terrorism. That’s the bottom line.


Short term solutions such as the containment of Somali communities and their relocation do not get us out of the insecurity rut we are in. This is possibly one of the worst times to be Somali in Kenya. I would imagine that post-August 1982 was a terrible time to be Luo in Nairobi, just like Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities faced increased levels of state violence in early Fifties Nairobi. In hindsight, we are able to appreciate that prosecuting and incarcerating certain communities did not resolve the issues of the day—either in 1952 or in 1982-83. Barely a week ago, I listened to a commentator on a vernacular radio station argue that Kenya needs a Guantanamo Bay solution for the Somali ‘problem.’ The human rights abuses, discrimination, and pure racism that accompany such a suggestion cannot be overstated. As a Kenyan who spends much of the year away from home, I can’t help but wonder how some of the solutions we’re currently implementing would look if extended to their logical limit. Witch-hunting the ‘foreigners’ amongst us is a terrible way to go about winning a psychological struggle against global terrorism. Think about it, the U.S. equivalent of Kenya raiding Nairobi’s Eastleigh due to its high Somali population would be FBI and SWAT team swoops in Boston, Atlanta, and Dallas—American cities with high concentrations of Kenyans. Imagine the mental toil of having to always have your documentation with you for fear that a cop could pull you over or accost you on the streets and possibly have you deported. Kenya has a large number of its citizens living as immigrants and expat workers globally: Australia, the Gulf, North America, South Africa, and the UK. We need to re-think how we treat our Somali relatives and to what extent we adhere to the Golden Rule: ‘love thy neighbor.’


The current level of insecurity is part of a much larger cycle of global violence and fits into a pattern of violence that Kenya has experienced since the 1998 US embassy bombing. More importantly, to resolve these challenges will require serious re-thinking of socially-ingrained habits including but not limited to the offering of educational opportunities, increased transparency in the country’s security apparatus, and addressing the culture of impunity that seems entrenched within Kenya’s elites. Knee-jerk reactions that militarise the urban space should not be the limit of our solutions. While they might work in the short-term to frustrate further terrorist operations, in the long-term they do nothing to address the root social issues that render fellow citizens vulnerable to terrorist recruiters, and they definitely risk further disenfranchising the Somali and/or Muslim section of Kenya’s population thus making the state lose in the struggle for ‘hearts and minds’.

Ultimately, we’re all involved – a sentiment that has only been pronounced by a minority of government and security officials. To the extent that we sustain and empower democratic and transparent systems of governance we are that much closer to defeating global terrorism. Conversely, seemingly unrelated acts of corruption weaken our state bureaucracy and make it more vulnerable. Bribing our way through the passport application process, land titling and registration, or paying to spring a friend from jail may seem far removed from explosive devices at bus stops but in reality they are not. The country’s capacity to deal ethically and efficiently to security threats is compromised each time Kenyans practise tax evasion, pay to get hired, offer bribes to get accepted into Kiganjo Police College and so on.

We are all affected each time a bomb goes off: either directly injured/killed, or indirectly by the oppressive fear that haunts us in both private and public spaces. Hence, we are all mandated to resolve the insecurity challenge. Believe it or not, the best effort you could make today in contribution to Kenya’s security is to follow due legal progress in relation to that speeding ticket, that expired license, or that job at a government office.


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