The Long History of the Garissa Attacks

April. The month of the long rains was upon us, and with its compulsive deluge flowed memories of an old hate. In Kenya, a cycle of violence enduring since the colonial period has been re-stoked, oblivious to the 21 years of “Never Agains” since the Rwandan genocide. As the horror of the massacre of 148 student from Garissa University College on April 2 gives in to raw mourning and endless fear, old protagonists like the Kenyan government and new actors like al-Shabaab recycle hatreds and recreate the enemy for the purposes of consolidating their power in a politics and economics of fear.

This is my attempt to place the recent Garissa atrocity in the context of a longer history. Many foreign reporters have expressed confusion that the al-Shabaab attackers at Garissa were Kenyan nationals. In part, this is because they aren’t able to connect the recent atrocity with the history of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District.

For al-Shabaab, the enemy is the non-Muslim. Survivors of the Garissa massacre and other terrorist attacks in Kenya have testified that they were asked to recite a Muslim prayer; those that could not do so were killed. The infidel has been cited by al-Shabaab as the cause of ineffable violence against the victimized Ummah, both locally and globally. 

For the Kenyan government, the enemy is al-Shabaab. This “al-Shabaab” is imagined as a young man who is a Somali, or a Muslim, or a refugee, or all of the above.

Both rely on the American discourse of the “War on Terror” to legitimate their violence. Both obfuscate local histories that show how they created this war in the first place. A picture of the Garissa attacks that has been emptied of proper historical context conceals the economy of this war; a war whose cyclic demand for vengeance ensures profits from the coal trade in Kismayu are reaped on a large scale by both al-Shabaab and the Kenyan government.

In Garissa, this scale of violence is not new. For, 35 years ago, in the very same Garissa, in a place that was named Bulla Kartasi, at least 3000 people were murdered. The whole village was burned, women were raped, many were killed and others starved to death in a concentration camp at Garissa Primary School — all at the hands of Kenyan government security forces.

It must have reeked then, of loss, pain and hatred, new precarities; new enemies. The reason? Six government officials murdered in Garissa town by a Kenyan-Somali nicknamed ‘Madhobe’ who cited the reason for his revenge murders as the continued persecution of Kenyan Somalis through political oppression and economic exclusion by the Kenyan government.

Shrill echoes from the colonial past provide an explanation. Ahmed Issack Hassan, (in his paper “Legal Impediments to Development in Northern Kenya,”) writes of how, in 1902, the colonial government of Kenya enacted the Outlying District Ordinance that proclaimed the closure of the Northern Frontier District (which now constitutes Garissa, Moyale, Mandera, Ijara, Wajir, Marsabit and Isiolo), Samburu, Tana River, Lamu and Kajiado. This made movement possible only through a special pass, in a bid to contain the ‘hostile pastoralist tribes’ who were dominant in these regions. This political quarantine was complemented by economic exclusion and racial othering that continues to this day, and helped produce a strong popular sense of a distinct political community that was not Kenyan and needed a different political anchor within a nation. This state of affairs would persist until 1960 when the people of NFD formed the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party (NPPPP) in a bid to secede from Kenya and be reunited with Somalia where culture and racism would not be used to exclude and marginalize. 

However the newly independent Kenyan state, claiming its territorial sovereignty, rejected the bid for secession; a move that had been heavily supported by most people in the region and which the colonial government had alluded to legally implementing before independence. The conflict that ensued resulted in the ‘Shifta’ war in 1963 where a state of emergency was declared by the North Eastern Province and Contiguous District Regulations that lasted nearly 30 years. The Kenyan government named the war Shifta, (a Somali word for bandit) a propaganda move which sought to equate the predominantly ethnic Somali peoples of the NFD with banditry. By amending, repealing or subsuming legislation for the purposes of national security, the State legalized deeply inhumane conditions that are usually permissible only in the event of a full-on war and, in the course of three years, perpetuated the mass killing of 4000 Northern Frontier District people, mainly non-combatants. It was not a war against Islam, as al-Shabaab would now like to claim. It was a secessionist war; a colonial war created, like other structures of colonial rule, around racist and ethnic constructions that artificially and violently matched fabricated identities with territories for the purposes of their rule. 

In 1984, Kenyan state forces carried out the Wagalla massacre, in which male members of the Degodia Somali clan were summarily executed, starved to death and tortured at the Wagalla airstrip. 5,000 people were killed. The government claimed it had sought to quell a clan war. It did not mention that it was following in the footsteps of its colonial predecessor by abandoning people in the North Eastern province, cutting off state service provision and painting a section of the national populace as anti-government bandits.

It is therefore true that many grievances abound in the North Eastern Province. However, these grievances were never historically founded on a war against Islam, as al-Shabaab insist. What al-Shabaab are trying to superimpose is a global anti-Islam discourse that has a very particular (and not really global) history that is not related to the history of violence in North Eastern Kenya. This violence had everything to do with the colonial and post colonial governments of Kenya justifying their political oppression, economic neglect and racial discrimination of the North Eastern Province, by equating these peoples to violent criminals, anti-government militia and now, with the War on Terror, as terrorists. Both the government and al-Shabaab are using this war to justify their political agendas

When Mr. Aden Duale, the Garissa Township MP and leader of majority in the national assembly so noxiously called for the immediate and involuntary repatriation of the 462,970 Somali refugees, many of whom ran from a highly perilous South Central Region in Somalia, he fed into the ‘victimization of the global ummah’ rhetoric that al-Shabaab are viciously peddling. Further marginalizing those already hanging precariously at the edge of the periphery of the national community can only serve to radicalize even more people. 

Instead of creating new forms of vulnerability and cycles of terror, it would instead be politically productive to address older conditions of precarity. This would include actually looking at the TJRC (Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission) report which was handed, after four years of work, to President Uhuru Kenyatta on May 21, 2013. It would also include a civil and judicial enquiry into the political sabotage of the report by its some of its commissioners, as well as politicians and the office of the president. The report called for a presidential apology for the State’s perpetration of many massacres, the release of official government records on these atrocities, the prevention of any of the perpetrators from having any public office, the reallocation of massive tracts of community land that was grabbed by government officials, as well as reparations for its victims.

Instead, the measures being proposed will only make matters worse, far worse. 

The idea of building a wall at the border of Kenya and Somalia is not only reminiscent of the inhumane Israeli ‘security-wall’ against Palestine (Israel is currently exchanging Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers for money with Rwanda!) but will also further drain an emaciated public budget that is bleeding out Sh74.1 billion ($861million) to the defense department. Worse still, the UN Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group has revealed that coal worth at least Sh22 billion ($250 million) was shipped by al-Shabaab from the port of Kismayu which is controlled by the KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) and Ras Kamboni militia of the Interim Jubba administration

The profits of the trade are then shared between these three forces. This trade is a major income stream for al-Shabaab that facilitates their terror activities, and also helps bankroll the Kenya Defence Forces resident in Somalia, and the Somalia RasKamboni forces. The coal trade has therefore created a massive economic incentive for the continuation of the war on both sides. Domestically, the fear that this war has produced has been translated into a mushrooming of private security firms as well as security equipment. Fear is being produced for sale. The hatred and precarity cyclically produced by this war is not only used to justify historical and contemporary injustices, but also sustains a coal and security industry that only exists because this war continues unabated.

The terrible anguish of loss cannot be alleviated, or made sense of, by history. However, our notions of the enemy should be historically redefined in order to avert a cycle of violence — a war against terror that was created to be infinite. Only then can we start to generate a different, and more humane, form of politics.

Noosim Naimasiah

Noosim Naimasiah is a PhD student at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda.

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