Ben Rawlence
2 minute read
4 Oct 2013
7:00 am

Westgate won’t be the last

Ben Rawlence

The attack that killed more than 70 people at Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall was, according to Al-Shabaab, the Somali Islamist militant group that carried it out, retribution for Kenya's intervention in Somalia.

That raises a question: What is Kenya doing in Somalia, and is it worth the price?

Since Kenya’s army invaded its northeastern neighbour two years ago, the government has told Kenyans they were going to war against Al-Shabaab.

But, as with most official pronouncements in Kenya, that story was only partly true. The proximate cause was the abduction of two Spanish aid workers from the vast refugee camps that encircle Dadaab. For Kenyan authorities, it was the final straw after a series of abductions of Westerners by Al-Shabaab; to stop incursions, they launched what military leaders believed would be a quick campaign.

Over the last two years, some progress has ostensibly been made. The two Spanish aid workers were released last July, and Al-Shabaab has attempted one abduction since.

But it retains control of the majority of Somalia and remains capable of striking Mogadishu, the capital, as well as Nairobi.

If the Kenyan government’s aim was, as it claimed, to destroy al-Shabaab, the intervention has been a spectacular failure.

But there is much more to the story. In fact, retaliation against the militant group was little more than a convenient excuse to launch the so-called Jubaland Initiative, a plan to protect Kenya’s security and economic interests by carving out a semi-autonomous client state in southern Somalia.

Beyond preventing Somalia’s violence from spilling over into Kenya and undermining its security and its tourist-driven economy, such a buffer state could be forced to absorb the half-million Somali refugees who now live in Dadaab’s refugee camps. The Jubaland Initiative is a policy of stunning racial profiling – and a gift to Al-Shabaab recruiters in Kenya.

Furthermore, contrary to claims that securing Kismayo put Al-Shabaab at a disadvantage, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea reported in July that the Kenyan Defence Forces have actually gone into business with Al-Shabaab.

This highlights a fundamental problem: the Kenyan state’s endemic corruption constantly undermines its policymakers’ goals.

Moreover, Kenya’s desire to carve out a buffer state conflicts with the Somali government’s goal of uniting the country.

Indeed, the last thing the government in Mogadishu wants is another semi-autonomous region challenging its authority.

A more coherent strategy would involve cutting off Al-Shabaab’s funding and addressing the grievances – such as human-rights abuses against Somalis, discrimination against Muslims, foreign meddling in Somalia, and corruption – that motivate its recruits.

Given these intractable grievances – and, more important, the weakness and corruption of the Kenyan state – the cycle of violence will be very difficult to break.

That is why the attack on the Westgate mall is unlikely to be the last such tragedy.

Ben Rawlence, an Open Society fellow, is author of “Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War”. – Project Syndicate