10 questions about Kenya you were too embarrassed to ask
“There’s no such thing as a stupid question”: if you aren’t aware of, or don’t understand what happened in Kenya last week, here’s a little perspective.
On 2 April 2015, members of al-Shabaab attacked the University of Garissa and killed 148 people in cold blood, mostly students. The massacre in the University in eastern Kenya took place around 150 kilometres from the Somalian border, and is the bloodiest event since 1998, when an al-Qaida attack on the American embassy claimed the lives of 213 people.
Below you will find a few basic questions followed by concise answers, to help you understand the context of the events. As the answers cannot be exhaustive, they are accompanied by an external link to provide more information on the subject.
We put these questions to Christian Thibon, a historian, Professor at the University of Pau, a member of the Les Afriques dans le Monde laboratory and a Kenya specialist.
1. What is Kenya?
Kenya is an emerging African country, and a former British colony. It used to have a one party system, before it was democratised in the 1990s, a move that led it to adopt a two-party system. In terms of ethnicities and religions, it’s a melting pot: every religion is present, with a Christian majority – 80%, with equal percentages of Catholics and Protestants, and a minority of Anglicans. There are around 10% of Muslims and a strong presence of “new” Pentecostal religions.
The parish of Garissa filled with the faithful for the Easter mass. See the slideshow on La Repubblica
2. What is the current Kenyan political situation?
Kenya is a country undergoing political changes, but the situation is far less tense than in neighbouring countries. The events of a few days ago have nothing to do with internal politics, but what certain is that they will have an effect on political life in Kenya.
Garissa is identified on the map by the red marker.
We should also discuss the situation in the cities (Nairobi, Kisumu, and Mombasa) and in the peripheral zones. The cities are experiencing huge growth, but the tensions we can observe there are mainly provoked by the unequal distribution of wealth.
The peripheral zones, where Garissa is located, enjoy very few development projects. The land is not very hospitable and there is a lot of desert. The rural populations present in these areas make up a form of general prosperity, but they feel a little marginalised. These are the sorts of places where radicalisation can take root.
3. What is al-Shabaab, and who are the attackers?
Al-Shabaab is an Islamist political movement created in 2006 in Somalia, one of the countries neighbouring Kenya. This movement gradually radicalised and joined forces with al-Qaida in Yemen. There are al-Shabaab members in Somalia, but also in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. They follow religious networks.
In Garissa, the mother of one of the victims, supported by the Red Cross, on 3 April 2015. (Photograph © AFP/Tony Karumba)
Their original demand was the establishment of Sharia law in Somalia, but they have still not succeeded as they are not as strong as they used to be. In military terms they are seeing a drop in numbers. They have lost cities following the intervention of American forces and the Kenyan army in Somalia. They are unable to achieve their political goals in Somalia, but they can successfully and symbolically disrupt neighbouring countries in an extreme way. This is what they have started doing. They have also recently started recruiting young Kenyans (as is the case of one of the attackers who has been identified), some of whom are unemployed and/or in a situation of poverty. That said, a frustration is also to be found in the higher classes. The upper class youth suffer from a generalised feeling of having no place in society. But that doesn’t just happen in Kenya.
Read on Le Monde.fr > Qui sont les Chababs, à l’origine du massacre de Garissa, au Kenya ?
Read on Causeur.fr >: Interview with Roland Marchal, researcher at CERI-Sciences Po: Massacre de Garissa: Qui sont les Chebabs ?
4. They acted in the most extreme cruelty. They took the time to divide the victims into groups of Christians and Muslims. The witnesses highlighted the attackers’ cynicism. What can this tell us?
This was obviously planned: a terrorist strategy is only successful when it succeeds in terrifying people in the true sense of the term. Cruelty is a necessary part of a terrorist message if it wants to be effective. We saw similar examples at Boko Haram. Faced with this cruelty, populations either radicalise and create religious, ethnic and political rivalries, or they submit.
Read on France 24 > Les assaillants de l’université ont agi avec méthode et sarcasme
Soldiers in front of the University of Garissa. Photograph © Reuters/Corriere
5. Why did they attack students?
Since gaining independence, Kenyan society is changing with a focus on social promotion. There is also a strong movement for female education, which is one of the country’s characterising features. At the end of the year, for example, the exam results are made public. It’s all everyone can talk about for four or five days, and all of the newspapers cover it.
There is a sort of collective communion surrounding education. Attacking a university means an attack on one of the pillars of Kenyan society, and an attack on its future.
Kenya is also undergoing major decentralisation. There is a growing number of universities in the provinces, like the University of Garissa. And as tuition fees are cheaper than in cities, they attract the national elite from the middle classes who don’t have the means to go to the more prestigious universities.
Kenya is a country of wealth and corruption, but also a country that promotes people based on merit.
The attack on a university like that was also an attack on all the elites who see university education as a chance for promotion, a chance to redistribute power.
Read on Times Higher Education > “The attack in Kenya highlights the vulnerability of universities”
6. Is there a rivalry between the Kenyans and the Somalians?
During the independence, the countries were literally torn apart. Part of a territory inhabited by Somalis became part of the new Kenya. An entire section of east Kenya is therefore inhabited by Somalians, who have kept the language, customs and culture of Somalia. They are represented in government, in the Kenyan administration, almost as much, if not more than their demographic status. These territories are fought over by both countries. And of course there is resentment and dispute, but despite this historic opposition, there stakes are not border battles but a global terrorist strategy. There are now new, changing radicalisation phenomena which involve the use of violence and the indoctrination of young people…
7. Has this sort of event already happened before?
The al-Shabaab phenomenon is relatively recent, but yes, there have been previous, similar events. At the end of the last year they claimed responsibility for the brutal attack on a bus which killed 28 people. There were at least three other attacks, including one extremely deadly one in September 2013. They attacked an American-style mall called the WestGate in Nairobi, the capital. The attack claimed the lives of 67 people. In this case the image of an international Kenya was the target for the attack.
8. What was the Kenyan government’s attitude following the attacks?
The Kenyan government said it would not give in to intimidation, but each time it was simply a political, symbolic act. There is a certain political unbalance, as when you look at the facts, the government seems incapable of protecting the population in the east of Kenya.
It’s a bit like the Wild West! It’s a very arid area which is difficult to control. There is a lack of border control and a lot of open spaces.
It’s a relatively common problem – a state unable to control its peripheral territories. There is a project to build a wall between Kenya and Somalia, based on the wall between Israel and Palestine, but it’s still very vague, and very costly. There is also a real institutional weakness. The Kenyan police force is very corrupt, and there is also no judicial institution following the evolution of terrorism very closely. The only thing in place is repressive, military policing.
Read on RFI > Kenya, la jeunesse demande des comptes au gouvernement
Read on JeuneAfrique > Kenyatta sous pression après l’attaque de Garissa
In Nairobi, the capital, on 5 April 2015. A man learns of the death of one of his family members. Photograph © AFP/Nicole Sobecki
9. How has Kenyan society reacted?
The time was not chosen randomly: the events took place the day before Easter, which is the most important date in the calendar after Christmas in Kenya.
Here we see a major example of the calendar effect; they knew it would strike a particular chord in Kenyan society.
Such violence in our society provokes collective crises, but this was not the case in Kenya. This country has a culture and political history that mean that society can overcome these crises. There were a few anti-Muslim acts, but on a small scale – at least for the moment.
Read on La Croix > Au Kenya, « Les Chebabs sont nos enfants »
10. Internet users reacted on social networks, particularly with the hashtag #Iamkenyan, to pay homage to the victims and protest against the weakness of the international community. What do you think about it?
It is not an exaggeration to speak about inequality in media coverage. The attacks in Bardo, in Tunisia, were a highly-covered topic, for example, but there is less media attention for Kenya. But it’s far from being a new phenomenon. For every terrorist attack there is a range of reactions from the international community, which reacts based on public opinion.
Read on Libération.fr > Tuerie de Garissa, deux poids deux mesures ?
Read on FranceTvInfo > Sur Twitter, des hashtags pour rendre hommage aux victimes
This article was inspired by a post on Syria published two years ago in the Washington Post blog: 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.