Kenya awakened with dark news last month. Just one more addition to what has lately become an epidemic hard to suppress. The country is growing tired of the constant mauling it has been subjected to in the last few years, but this might just be the spark that ignites a fire. The Al-Shabab attack on the Garissa University College on the 2nd of April has sparked the outrage of many in the country, in what is becoming a very tense affair. One cannot blame the anger caused amongst the populace, as this is the most recent of a continuing trend in the last few years, ever increasing, ever more violent and ever so insensible. It was thoroughly accentuated with the 2013 Nairobi West Gate Shopping Mall bombings in which 67 injuries, a hostage crisis and 175 injuries were reported at the end of what was a disgraceful incident. There were high tensions for some time but these quickly died down and normal life resumed after some denouncing words from the international community and president Uhuru Kenyatta.
This time Al-Shabab have gruesomely bested themselves again: the objective of the attacks was a learning centre and had somewhat more intent that the last one did. The casualties more than doubled, standing at a count of 148 and the victims, young students who pursued nothing more than their education, could have made a tragic transformation to take place in the mind-set of how the average Kenyan deals with extremism. This time, Kenyatta has vowed to respond: “in the severest way possible” in order to cut the violence, but the problem sadly resides elsewhere. This issue needs a detailed and well thought-out response.
Many factors surround the conflict and could have potentially devastating effects on Kenyan society if not addressed cautiously. The most obvious of potential threats is that of a religious conflict. Kenya is in its majority Christian, but it hosts a sizeable Muslim minority that constitutes eleven percent of the population. Up to this date, Christian Kenyans have not responded with violence to Al-Shabab’s many vicious provocations. The procedure to appease the pain was according to a Kenyan cleric, one of shock, anger and then a shrug, as people learnt to forget. However, this latest incident could have a resounding effect on that peace.
In contrast to previous episodes, the Garissa massacre saw the deliberate targeted killing of Christians specifically, as students were forced to identify their religious affiliation and Muslims were given marching orders before the blood was spilt. The consequences of this could result in a divide between the two religious communities and in hostilities ensuing the segregation. This has been witnessed in the past in nations such as the Central African Republic and in Sudan, and it would not be surprising to see it happening in the Kenya. The country’s Christian representatives have spoken, in regard to their manner of coping with conflict, assuring that whilst it is true that their faith urges them to turn the other cheek, it has now come to the point where they’ve “run out of cheeks.” This sends a defying message to the perpetrators, something that had previously been unheard of in their peaceful approach to violent conflict.
The atmosphere in Kenya is slowly turning sour; there is a certain wariness in the air, fearful of the consequences that this will bring. It is a tricky balance to attempt to achieve: on the one part, President Kenyatta cannot continue his relaxed approach when attempting to deal with a problem that is now posing some serious questions in regard to Kenyan security and religious coexistence. Nevertheless, on the other hand, being too harsh with the means that he employs in order to solve the problem can cause further divide in an already tense scenario. The key to Kenyan stability and the rejection of armed extremism from its boundaries is to assess the situation delicately.
Raising awareness for national as opposed to religious unity and successfully alienating AlShabab from Islam will be key in Kenya’s foreign policy approach if it is to conserve its domestic peace and use it to fend the threat of radical extremism. For Kenya, the mourning is over; it is time to wake up.