The recent massacre carried out by al-Shabab at Garissa University and the subsequent Kenyan bombing of terrorist camps within Somalia has led to fears that sectarian violence may erupt along the border of the two fragile countries. Muslims make up approximately 11% of the Kenyan population, with most followers of Islam living in the northern and eastern parts of the country where in some areas they constitute a majority. Many of these Muslims are ethnic Somalis.
It is feared in some quarters that nervous Christian communities will retaliate against the assault by attacking more moderate Muslim citizens. The majority Christian population (approximately 83%), meanwhile, is likely to remain the target of future attacks by this brutal terrorist organisation, which is greatly opposed to Kenyan intervention in Somalia’s endless civil war.
Arguably, this precarious security situation is the direct result of British colonialism and the subsequent repressive actions of the independent Kenyan government.
The Pain of De-Colonisation
By the late 19th century Britain controlled much of present-day Kenya (as British East Africa) and Somalia (as British Somaliland). In 1925, the Somalian territory of Jubaland was divided in half by the British, the northern segment being awarded to the Italians for their support of the Entente powers during World War One. The southern half of the province was incorporated into British East Africa as part of the North Eastern District.
As Somalia approached independence in 1960, the British government voiced its intentions that all Somali-majority provinces of East Africa should be united together in the new republic. This, by rights, included the North Eastern District (now known as the North Eastern Province), whose inhabitants overwhelmingly voted in favour of joining the Somali Republic in a plebiscite.
However, when the British and Italian dominions united as an independent republic, the North Eastern Province was not simultaneously incorporated. Rather, its administration was handed to the Kenyans, who themselves were on the road to independence. When this was achieved in 1963, the new Kenyan government refused to cede the Somali-dominated territory of the northeast to its neighbour. This precipitated the Shifta War, in which the Kenyan authorities used a series of repressive measures and attacks to prevent the Somalis of the Northern Frontier District Liberation Movement from seceding.
A ceasefire was forced upon the Somalis in 1967 but sporadic violence continued in the province over the next few decades, spurred by both ethnic and religious division. The 1984 Wagalla Massacre, in which some 5,000 Somali men were summarily executed by Kenyan security forces, helped create an undying bitterness in the country’s northeast.
The North Eastern Province has since been split into three counties – those of Mandera, Wajir and Garissa – areas where al-Shabab has had success both recruiting and training Kenyan Somalis. The massacre in Garissa last week only served to highlight the vulnerabilities of citizens living along the Kenyan-Somali border.
The repercussions of colonisation – and perhaps more significantly de-colonisation – are still being felt across the African continent. Artificial borders created arbitrarily between rival ethnic, tribal and religious groups have led to longstanding problems and Kenya-Somalia is just another example.
Yet what also must be considered is the severe repression handed out by successive Kenyan governments to its Somali minority, which has exacerbated existing hatreds and tensions.
Furthermore, al-Shabab is not merely opposed to Kenyan Christians. The organisation has shown itself desirous of slaughtering Muslims of a more moderate nature, both in Kenya and Somalia, the blood-curdling nature of the attacks inflaming fears of the ‘other’.
To have any hopes of defeating the group and ensuring stability in East Africa, the Kenyan government must not only seek to inflict military defeat on al-Shabab with the help of its international allies, but also to engage its Somali community in the north and east of the country.
Without their support and trust, al-Shabab will continue to find willing recruits capable of the most heinous brutalities and innocent Somalis will be prone to retaliatory attacks by non-Muslim Kenyans desperate for security.