After Garissa, Kenya needs to break the cycle

The massacre at a university in Kenya should lead the government to a recognition that repressive and discriminatory reactions, however tempting, have only fuelled such horrific violence.

Leslie Lefkow
6 April 2015

United in grief: a survivor of the attack (centre) rejoins her family at the Nyayo national stadium in Nairobi. Demotix / Reporter#34145. All rights reserved.

If anyone doubted it before, the abominable attack on Kenya’s Garissa University College on 2 April confirms the depth of Kenya’s security crisis. At least 147 students, faculty members and others are confirmed dead, scores of others were injured in the day-long attack and the death toll could still rise.

The attackers entered the campus at 5.30am and began hurling grenades and firing indiscriminately with machine guns, before taking scores of students hostage. They later singled out Christians for execution, taunting them and telling them the attack was revenge for Kenya’s military deployment in Somalia, according to survivors. Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based Islamist militant group, swiftly claimed responsibility.

Targeting civilians

Garissa is the largest town in Kenya’s north-east region and mainly populated by ethnic Somalis, who are mostly Muslim, but the students were from around the country, of many ethnicities and religions. Witnesses and family members of victims said that in the initial phase the assailants killed randomly. “We have relatives at the university who were not spared by al-Shabaab,”a human-rights activist in Garissa county told Human Rights Watch (HRW). “This has been a big blow to all of us. They were clearly targeting all civilians, no matter the religion.”

Al-Shabaab’s narrative that it spares Muslims is belied by its grisly record of repeatedly attacking civilians in predominantly Muslim Somalia—where it has shown no compunction about murdering students, women and children in countless suicide bombings. So singling out Christians in Kenya seems more of a tactic aimed at stoking ethnic and religious tensions than a matter of ideological conviction.   

And it may be succeeding.

Many members of Kenya’s Muslim and Somali communities are paying an especially heavy price, being twice victimised. First come al-Shabaab and its supporters, seeking to sow terror, hatred and division. Then come Kenya’s security forces, who routinely mete out collective punishment to members of the Somali and Muslim communities, based solely on their ethnic and religious affiliation.

For years HRW and other human-rights organisations have repeatedly documented mass beatings, detentions, even torture of whole neighbourhoods and villages, in the wake of militant attacks on Kenyan security forces. The military and various police units, from the administrative police to the anti-riot squad known as the General Service Unit (GSU), have also been responsible for mass extortion and looting in the course of raids and operations.

Grim history

Human-rights abuses by the security forces long predate al-Shabaab. Kenya’s north-east has a grim history dating back to the secessionist war which began in the 1960s. For decades the region was under a state of emergency and the Kenyan military committed serious human-rights violations, including one of its most horrific crimes—the notorious 1984 Wagalla massacre near Wajir, in which several thousand ethnic Somalis were killed.

Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, established after the 2008 post-election violence and mandated to investigate violations since independence, produced a long report which provides important material on the history of such abuses in the north-east, and the country more broadly. The commission found that Kenya’s military and police had been the main perpetrators of mass killings, torture and other “violations of the bodily integrity” of Kenyan citizens over the preceding five decades, whether in the north-east or elsewhere.

Corruption and lack of accountability have long been identified as twin roots of many of the failings of Kenyan institutions, including the police.

The report, whose recommendations have not been implemented two years after it was handed to the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, also concluded that there had been no political will to address this dire record. On the contrary, successive Kenya administrations have gone to great lengths to cover up and deny it.

Since al-Shabaab intensified its campaign in Kenya in 2011, there have been scores of grenade and gun attacks, often relatively small-scale but usually killing a number of civilians, which have drawn little international attention. Abusive operations by the security forces have usually followed.

In Nairobi, for instance, authorities carried out operation Usalama Watch in April 2014, following a series of grenade and gun attacks in the predominantly-Somali Eastleigh neighbourhood of the capital, Nairobi, and in Mombasa. Kenyan police and military deployed about 5,000 security personnel to Eastleigh over several weeks. Officers beat scores of people, raided homes, buildings and shops, extorted massive sums, and harassed and detained an estimated 4,000 people—including registered refugees, Kenyan citizens, journalists and international aid workers—without charge and in appalling conditions, for periods well beyond the 24-hour legal limit.

The abuses during the Usalama Watch operation and others have been documented by various groups, including the Independent Oversight Policing Authority (IPOA). It has issued several critical reports, raising concerns about slow responses by the security services, failure to protect civilians and poor co-ordination during incidents.

Abuses denied

Instead of seriously addressing the allegations and undertaking the essential police reforms spelled out in several inquiries—and re-emphasised by the IPOA in its recommendations—to meet constitutional requirements, the government routinely denies the scale of the abuses. It has credibly investigated or prosecuted few terrorism suspects and even fewer of those within the security forces responsible for violations.

Al-Shabaab appears to understand and exploit this pattern, which plays into religious and ethnic fissures in Kenya. Other than Nairobi, the areas with frequent attacks are home to the country’s largest Muslim communities, whose residents have complex and longstanding political and economic grievances. The anger and frustration many communities feel is only exacerbated when they are targeted by both al-Shabaab and the security forces ostensibly sent to protect them.

Why would most Kenyan Somalis even attempt to report security information to police, if the likely response is a request for a bribe, with the threat of arbitrary detention and beating and, at best, taunts that ‘you are al-Shabaab’. As for refugees, in addition to the physical and verbal abuse, there’s the risk of having precious identification documents destroyed or confiscated, as has happened repeatedly in Eastleigh over the past few years.  

Many also question why they should report police abuse, since no one will be held to account. In Lamu county HRW interviewed scores of villagers who described the usual pattern of assaults, detention and so on in a security operation there in late 2014, after armed attacks on Mpeketoni and several other villages—also claimed by al-Shabaab—had killed more than 60 people in mid-June. A man and his son who were beaten by police never reported the abuse, since the commander in charge of the unit was attached to the local police station. “Where do we go now?” he asked. “This is not how to fight terrorism.” 

If Kenya’s government understands that it needs to build trust within Somali and Muslim communities, it has yet to show any sign of shifting course and addressing the profound deficits in confidence, accountability and competence which plague the military and police. Instead, Kenyan officials contend that the solution to the security crisis is to restrict further core human-rights protections.


Justifying restrictions on rights as a security measure is not unique to Kenya and some rights can be limited in times of emergency for defined periods. But in December the government proposed, and the parliament controversially passed, wide-ranging amendments to numerous laws to expand police and intelligence-service powers, while restricting investigative journalism, freedom of expression and the rights of refugees—in violation of Kenya’s own constitution and international law. Courts struck down key provisions, but the government appears to adhere selectively to judicial rulings, weakening the overall rule of law.

As news of the Garissa killlings began to emerge, for instance, one of Kenyatta’s first actions was to order 10,000 officers, whose appointments the High Court had nullified because of suspected corruption in their recruitment, to report to camp for training. The president’s action was symbolic of the broader deficiencies which have contributed to the security crisis.

Corruption and lack of accountability have long been identified as twin roots of many of the failings of Kenyan institutions, including the police. For instance, there has been no justice or accountability for the 2008 violence, which saw at least 1,100 people die, displaced hundreds of thousands more and nearly precipitated a civil war—despite widespread agreement that accountability and security-sector reforms are essential for Kenya’s long-term stability.

Kenya’s government ignores these reforms at its peril, especially since the security crisis generated by al-Shabaab is not simply a spillover from Somalia. One of the shifts in al-Shabaab’s strategy over the past few years has been increasingly to recruit and deploy Kenyans and to cultivate Kenyan affiliates, who may be responsible for some of the recent attacks, including in Garissa. It’s clear that some recruits are drawn from a range of ethnic and even religious backgrounds.

Addressing the abuses, corruption and impunity which fuel radicalisation and al-Shabaab recruitment in Kenya should be a high priority in efforts to improve security. To enforce security while protecting human rights is not contradictory. Far from the targeting of suspected terrorists or discrimination against entire communities being legitimate, such violations simply alienate communities whose support is desperately needed by the security forces if they are effectively to protect Kenya’s population. The abuses have profound implications for all Kenyans, and ultimately put every Kenyan at risk. 

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