Corruption, injustice, abuse, disillusionment, marginalization, and radicalization are the legacies of years of misguided policies in Kenya. After an al Shabab rampage in Garissa earlier this month left over 140 university students dead, these issues are impossible to ignore. If Nairobi continues to refuse to address them or fails to do so, the already troubled East African country will soon become even more unstable.

The radical Islamist group al Shabab is responsible for the series of terrorist attacks that have rocked Kenya in past few years. But the reality is that al Shabab is a shadow of what it once was. The al Qaeda-linked group has been pushed out of all major cities in Somalia and cut off from its financial lifelines. Its leaders have been decimated by drone attacks, internal strife, and defections. And that is why the group’s ability to easily attack within Kenya is so puzzling. For their part, Kenyan leaders have long contended that entities outside the government, namely Somalia-based fighters and the country’s minority Muslim population, are to blame. But the truth is that the main culprits are the culture and policies of the government itself.    

A boy is searched for weapons in front of a Catholic church in Garissa, April 5, 2015.
A boy is searched for weapons in front of a Catholic church in Garissa, April 5, 2015.
Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Take, for example, Kenya’s security services, which are acknowledged as the most corrupt institution in one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The entrenched system of nepotism, bribery, and tribal affiliation has led observers to conclude that, in practice, the forces decrease security more than increase it. Would-be attackers easily transverse Kenya’s 400-mile border with Somalia, which is dangerously porous because of the lack of personnel and resources. Infiltration is made even easier by border guards who are quick to take bribes. Half-hearted attempts at reform have met with spectacular failure. An initiative last year to recruit 10,000 new, and hopefully uncorrupt, police officers was halted due to reports that recruits had to bribe their way into being considered for the job.

Corruption might clear the way for attacks, but incompetence turns tragedies into national disasters. The Garissa attack and the September 2013 Westgate shopping mall siege were both low-tech rampages involving a small group of dedicated individuals armed with AK-47s and grenades. As the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris demonstrated, this sort of attack can happen in any country, and there is no such thing as perfect security. But what makes the situation in Kenya troubling is the response.   

It boggles the mind that four gunmen were able to kill 67 people and then hold their ground at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall for more than three days against Kenya’s top paramilitary, army, and police forces. Adding in the level of disorganization among the security forces that led to number of friendly fire casualties and revelations that members of the Kenyan army looted the mall under the guise of battling militants, bewilderment turns to outrage. In the Garissa attack, army units stationed inside the city arrived at the besieged university in short order. However, even though the army personnel vastly outnumbered and outgunned the militants, commanders made the inexplicable decision to stand down and wait for a Nairobi-based counterterrorism unit to do the job. Seven hours later, that unit finally arrived. By then, every one of the students was dead.

President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses a news conference at the State House in the capital Nairobi, April 4, 2015.
President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses a news conference at the State House in the capital Nairobi, April 4, 2015.
Thomas Mukoya / Reuters

Kenya’s handling of intelligence warnings and travel advisories has also come into question. Security forces were not put on alert despite specific intelligence warning of a possible attack on a university. A day before al Shabab struck, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta even lashed out at the advisories calling them “not genuine.” Hostility toward legitimate warnings has been a recurring theme. The Kenyan government appears to prefer to remain in denial rather than risk losing the much-needed dollars from the country’s suffering tourism industry. This lack of caution puts the lives of its citizens and foreigners at risk. Kenyan leaders need to acknowledge that their country is unsafe and admit that the warnings have merit.

Then there is Kenya’s longstanding struggle with homegrown radicalization. Even though Kenyatta acknowledged after the Garissa attack that those behind the incident were “deeply embedded” within the country’s Muslim community, it appears the government still has not come to grips with its causes. Fortunately one doesn’t need to look far: Nairobi has been its own worst enemy in trying to reverse this trend.

The security forces’ well-documented history of abuse, discrimination, and heavy handedness is directly connected to radicalization. A security force constituted almost entirely of Christians known for making indiscriminate mass arrests and extrajudicial killings continues to put Kenya’s Muslims population on the defensive. The result has been the creation of a clear fault line between groups, one easily exploited by al Shabab. The narrative is simple: the “crusader” Kenyan government is part of a coalition at war with Islam, occupying Muslims lands and denying Muslim citizens their basic human rights.

Kenyan authorities are struggling to find an answer. Young men are disappearing from Kenyan towns at an alarming rate. The revelation that the leader of the Garissa attack was not the stereotypical unemployed, poor, disenfranchised young man, but rather a well-to-do son of a government official has dispelled some of the myths about terrorist motivations. His radicalization, as well as the membership of non-Somalis in al Shabab, underlines that ideology is at the core of the terrorist group’s appeal.

Instead of trying to tackle all these issues, Kenyan leaders have fallen back on their usual responses: attacking easy targets and pursuing knee-jerk policies. As before, these simply make matters worse. The government’s immediate reaction following the Garissa attack was to conduct airstrikes against al Shabab targets in Somalia. It was a sham military operation that merely allowed Kenyan leaders to show the public they were “doing something.” Kenya has targeted the bases that the planes purportedly hit several times before, and al Shabab members know quite well to stay clear of them after high-profile attacks. The operation was an exercise of bombing dirt, with no resulting casualties or material loss.

A guard collars a Somali refugee after he tried to jump the line at the World Food Program distribution center in Dadaab Camp.
A guard collars a Somali refugee after he tried to jump the line at the World Food Program distribution center in Dadaab Refugee Camp, September 1, 2011.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Next up, the government went after Somali refugees. The sprawling refugee camp Dadaab has always been a popular rhetorical target following al Shabab attacks, and, as expected, it did not take long after the Garissa incident for the government to call for its closure. The camp’s threat to Kenya’s national security is legitimate, albeit exaggerated, but such talk is hollow. If Kenya were to forcefully close the facility, it would not only be breaking international agreements, but also exponentially increasing the risk of al Shabab recruitment. Sending half a million Somalis back to nowhere would play right in the terrorists’ hands. 

Finally, the government published a list of individuals and entities with suspected links to al Shabab. Some were obvious choices, such as well-known leaders from the group, but others were not so clear-cut. Mixed in the list were remittance companies that are financial lifelines for thousands in Kenya and Somalia. Undoubtedly al Shabab has received some money through these types of services, but a number of aid agencies say that wholesale freezes of their bank accounts will hurt the poorest and the most vulnerable and will put a major damper on humanitarian work in Somalia. Meanwhile, the dubious inclusion of two respected human rights organizations and a number of busing companies without explanation also puts the integrity of the list in doubt.

The Garissa attack has also bolstered the prominence of two unfortunate ideas: building a 400-mile long wall along the Somali border and withdrawing troops from Somalia. Rampant corruption in Kenya would likely make the wall project impossible anyway, but the belief that such measures would solve Kenya’s struggles with terrorism is part of the problem. And if Kenya were to fold to pressure and remove its troops from Somalia before the job is finished, it would only breathe life into al Shabab

Pressure is mounting for Kenyatta to enact serious reforms, and his recent admission that there were security failures at Garissa may signal that things are shifting. But Kenyans shouldn’t hold their breaths. Nairobi has proven time and again that it is incapable of or unwilling to make difficult reforms. It may end up that civilians will be forced to take to the streets in a major way to push the government to action, or take matters into their own hands, such as the pledge from the country’s top Muslim organization to root out radical clerics from mosques. However it plays out, the longer Kenya waits to address its problems in some fashion, the more innocents will die and the more dysfunctional the state will become.


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