Terror at Westgate Mall

With what happened last weekend, Kenya risks being swamped in long-term instability

It was an amazing story unfolding before us on Monday morning. Nairobi’s shopping mall called Westgate had been taken over in a terrorist operation by the group called al-Shabaab operating in next-door Somalia.

Dozens of visitors to the mall had already been killed by some 15 gunmen who had infiltrated it while others were being held up hostage inside. Numerous others had managed to escape with and without wounds. It seemed Kenyan soldiers were finding it hard to subjugate the terrorists as gunfires continued from inside, to be followed up subsequently by a huge blast through the roof of the mall.

Kenya is a country that has always been friendly to Mauritius. Its capital, Nairobi, is barely a four-hour direct flight from Plaisance Airport. We’ve had longstanding bilateral trading links with Kenya. Along with 20 other countries, Kenya and Mauritius form part of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a regional grouping which seeks to integrate eventually all its members into a united economic bloc like the European Union with a common currency, a single central bank for the entire region and duty-free non-trade barrier-free intra-regional trade. This has proved to be a difficult project to implement despite quite some amount of progress having been made on certain fronts so far. We have therefore a stake in Kenya’s well-being, the more we look to Africa as our next economic partner.

Exporting instability to Kenya

The terror attacks on the mall have their origins in strange circumstances. Somalia has for quite some time been a hotbed for piracy, kidnappings for ransom and militant groups seeking after political power. As a consequence, a flood of Somali refugees have escaped into bordering Kenya. Having reduced the country to a chaotic condition and hence dried up resources from which to extract money, Somali militants started targeting Kenyan tourist coastal resort towns in the quest for money from wealthy tourists by way of kidnappings. Somali pirates were also scouring the neighbouring ocean to fund themselves. Kenya was thus made to pay a heavy price for being a neighbour to a war-torn next-door country in the grips of a radicalist group of militants.

Some tourists and refugees were abducted from Kenya in the last year and, if I am not mistaken, a couple of them were actually killed when the ransom money was delayed. In the main, it was al-Shabaab that was carrying out those operations threatening by the same token, to spill over Somalia’s instability into Kenya. This was becoming evident from the increasing stream of refugees landing in Kenya along the Somali border. It is estimated that in the city of Nairobi alone, there would be some 250,000 Somali refugees. Apart from the threat of exporting instability, Somali militants were putting at risk Kenya’s vital tourism and port industries. Shipping companies were actively looking for alternative destinations to avert facing up to Somali pirates. It is in reaction to such threats that Kenya decided lately to intervene by sending its troops in Somalia.

Revenge as the springboard of militant action

African Union forces (AU forces) drawn from Uganda, Burundi and Sierra Leone were already in Somalia trying to stem the tide of militancy that had made governance almost impossible in Somalia. But the AU forces had had limited impact on the scale of dominance by al-Shabaab in Somalia so far. In fact, this militant group’s actions in Somalia were not to better define Somalia or the Somalis themselves; actually, Somalis were its primary targets. It was the intervention of the Kenyan troops that altered fundamentally the balance of power in Somalia. Kenyan troops went all the way to attack and oust al-Shabaab from out of its strongholds in the country. The pressure mounted heavily after the Kenyan intervention against al-Shabaab which lost plenty of Somali territory it once controlled.

Groups similar to al-Shabaab, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, are firmly grounded on revenge. The recent incidents at the Westgate mall in Nairobi can be interpreted in this context of revenge-seeking for the difference the Kenyan troops had made in the previous setup of Somalia. It may be recalled that three years ago, the same Somali militants rampaged into a group of spectators watching the World Cup final in Kampala, killing nearly a hundred of them. This was that self-same spirit of revenge against Uganda for being part of the AU forces that had gone into Somalia.

Kenya’s president announced in the aftermath to this week’s killings by al-Shabaab in the mall that he would be sending in more troops into Somalia to “punish those responsible” for the massacre of over sixty innocent women, children and men and wounding hundreds of others caught up in the mall.

Regrouping of a seemingly spent force

While Kenya has a legitimate aspiration to seek peace for making economic progress, one needs to assess whether it would be a wise decision on its part to enter into a bitter long-lasting struggle against al-Shabaab in Somalia. As stated before, revenge is a key motivating force for militant groups like al-Shabaab. It follows that while Kenya would be justified to seek justice for the brutal killings at the Nairobi mall, there comes up the question of the finality of the military action sought to be intensified against the militant group in Somalia. Clearly, action will lead to reaction. There is a clear risk of escalation. It appears that the al-Shabaab’s action at the mall was part of a well-calculated plan which had been worked up taking into account Kenya’s vulnerabilities, including weak intelligence and easy penetration by a small group of militants dedicated to fight it out to death. On the side of the militants, there was also clearly the element of training and audacity.

An entrenchment of Kenya into the fight will most likely invite a series of identically organized havocs inside Kenya which could then become the principal target of a group that was only lately appearing to be a spent force at least as far as Somalia is concerned. What was perhaps intended by al-Shabaab as a warning to Kenya of the consequences of sending troops to Somalia could eventually escalate into a full-fledged war of attrition. Any over-reaction by Kenya’s security forces will entrench Kenya deeper layers of international radical militancy.

Past events in other countries have shown that once the perception of victimisation of such groups by a superior force is created, this kind of situation could unleash global support for the Somali militant group. It is like the situation in Syria today. Fighters with different affiliations are being drawn in from all over the world into the Syrian conflict. The same risk exists that the al-Shabaab will get amplified into and inside Kenya itself especially if Kenya embarked on a series of repressive security actions against potential adherents to militancy within its borders. Home-grown radicals might add up to their ranks and eventually draw the country into a seemingly interminable struggle for power against a militant force drawing support from diverse corners of the world. This kind of regrouping of forces may even destroy Kenya’s structure of governance.

A long term view

Despite the horror that the attack on the mall in Nairobi inspires, it may be wise not to give cause for the destructive Somali force to revive. An international force would be more apt to deal with the situation than single countries engaging on their own to stop the chaos. Good Kenyan leadership will make a difference by avoiding to get the country entangled into an unending struggle. Kenya would simply not be in a position to match huge amounts of resources pouring in to the militant group once it got into global ascendancy.

Previous action has shown that the coming up of credible alternatives to such forces in affected countries can stem the tide of havoc wrought by them. This is what the international community could organize for Somalia in a bid to avoid pitching single countries against such unpredictable forces. The fight should not be allowed to go out to other countries. It should be contained within the borders of Somalia.

Events today paint quite a picture of what the world collectively can or cannot do. The West has shown its weak stand in the case of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The unwillingness of populations in the West to engage their countries in war is another pointer about the little extent to which there is commitment to a peaceful international order.

All this is concrete warning to individual countries like Kenya not to count on others to come to their rescue when it comes to the crunch. In the circumstances, Kenya’s leaders will show to the world their real mettle if they manage this delicate situation for the long term by not drawing the country into what could turn out to be a protracted war of attrition against an elusive enemy having the capacity to fight out a long drawn battle if only to show to the world that one has to count with it.

* Published in print edition on 27 September 2013

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