"My heart is dull with pain, and I feel the pull to cover it all with that hard, now familiar, Kenyan cynicism and move on, which really means suck the very remaining soul of it dry."
Writer Binyavanga Wainaina wrote these words a few days after four gunmen from the al-Shabaab militant group entered the Garissa University College in north eastern Kenya and killed 148 people, most of them students.
More than two weeks later, Kenyans are still trying to come to terms with the profound tragedy. A collective grief has stabbed the nation, leaving it floundering for answers to a plethora of questions: how could Garissa have been avoided? Why was security not increased at the University College despite militants warning of an attack a week earlier? How many lives could have been saved had there been proper security on the campus? Why did rescue forces arrive so late? Why are Kenyan troops still deployed in Somalia? Where will Kenya go from here?
But for our present to be understood, our past has to be contended with first. We have to face up to the events in history that are no longer acknowledged by the majority of Kenyans.
The violent past
Kenya has unresolved problems with Somalia, dating back to 1962 when it refused to accept a referendum in which Kenyan-Somalis voted overwhelmingly to join Somalia. The country’s north eastern region bordering Somalia, where the majority of Kenyan-Somalis live, has been historically marginalised, discriminated against, and at times dealt with violence.
In 1963, Kenyan soldiers attacked Isiolo in the north eastern province. Three hundred people were massacred in Garissa Gubay by security personnel in 1980. Five thousand Kenyan-Somalis were brutally killed in Wagalla in 1984. In December 2012, the Kenyan police abused, raped and detained 1,000 Somali refugees. Sixty nine people died and 179 were severely injured in the Westgate attack in 2013. The following year, 50 people died in the Mpeketoni attack near the Somali border. In the same year, nearly 1,000 Somali were arrested in an anti-terrorist operation in Nairobi and detained in Kasarani Stadium, which soon became a concentration camp.
In the recent past, the north eastern region has emerged as a recruitment ground for the al-Shabaab group. Several families in Isiolo have reported their sons missing in the last few days, raising the fear that they were recruited by al-Shabaab and providing a possible confirmation of home-grown terror taking root in Kenya. Besides this, there are other vivid interconnections between Kenya and al-Shabaab – according to a UN report, Kenyan forces in strife-wracked Somalia reportedly facilitate the export of charcoal from the port city of Kismayo in south Somalia. The irony is, it is this multimillion-dollar trade that is funding the Islamist militants of al-Shabaab.
Despite all these realities staring us in the face, some of the world media has cited the common scapegoat of religion as the reason for the Garissa attack.
Need for a unified voice
Since the massacre, anger has overwhelmed Kenyan hearts – anger at not being protected, anger at the obliteration of 148 futures, anger at being used as a pawn on a strategic chessboard ruled by a corrupted political system which privileges its own interests over its people’s security.
The question in their minds is: today it’s Garissa, what will be the target tomorrow?
Kenyans have started conceding that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has failed. Immediately after the attack, Kenyatta cleared the recruitment of 10,000 police officers, but it is hard to see how this measure – or building a wall along the Kenyan-Somali border or removing the Dadaab refugee camp with all its unimaginable consequences – would secure the country. Shouldn’t the first steps towards security be the eradication of corruption, a policy of inclusiveness for the marginalised East Province and the Coast, the withdrawal of Kenyan troops from Somalia, and the improvement of socio-economic indicators and the justice system?
Kenyans are in pain also for the lack of empathy with which the Kenyan authorities have handled the pre- and post-Garissa events. The most outrageous instance was when senior police officer Pius Masai Mwachi told Kenyans still mourning their beloved ones: “If you are in the hands of terrorists, free yourselves as soon as possible. Don’t just be killed like cockroaches.” As if this was not enough, Kenyans had to endure the humiliation of the world media callously showing pictures of bloodied bodies on their front-pages, reducing the 148 dead students to just numbers. It was to humanise the victims that Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh Mwangi had created the hashtag #147notjustanumber. And to top all this, world leaders have displayed little concern after the tragedy.
An attack on students further undermines the future of a country that is already threatened if the marginalised youth are going over to militant groups because they don’t have better opportunities.
It is time for the government to take start building a social structure that provides equal opportunities to all. We must prepare our future generations to face their past and refuse the obscure narrative of a silent and vulnerable country. We must share ideas in the public space and raise a unified voice that calls for everyone’s rights. Our leaders are supposed to give our youth a vision to believe and invest in, so that they never fall apart and have the strength to uphold the values of a nation based on the spirit of ubinadamu (humanity), empathy, inclusiveness and justice. This should be people’s demand. We need to ensure that words will not fail our youth.