Carl de Souza / AFP / Getty Images

Kenya is losing the plot against Al-Shabab

Security sector corruption and the lack of an exit plan from Somalia have made Kenya a vulnerable target

April 7, 2015 2:00AM ET

On April 2, half a dozen masked men stormed a university in the northeastern Kenyan town of Garissa, about 100 miles from the border with Somalia, killing a reported 148 students. The death toll is expected to rise.

The Somali armed group Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack. Four militants were killed during a siege that lasted 15 hours. It is the deadliest attack on Kenyan soil since the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing, which killed more than 200 people.

The attack came less than a week after Britain and Australia warned its citizens against all but essential travel to parts of Kenya, including Garissa. Kenya dismissed the travel warnings. “The travel advisories being issued by our friends are not genuine,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said a day before the attack. “I have not heard of any travel advisory issued to those visiting Paris, which recently experienced a terror attack.”

Entrenched corruption in the security sector and the lack of a clear exit plan from Somalia has made Kenya a vulnerable target for Al-Shabab. The government’s tepid response — long on fiery rhetoric and short on meaningful steps to stop the attacks — has emboldened the group. Absent serious strategies to fight corruption and address Kenya’s future in Somalia, Kenyans will continue to lose their lives to a group that is desperate for relevance and still capable of carrying out deadly attacks.

Severe response

Since Kenya’s intervention in Somalia in October 2011, Al-Shabab has carried out high-profile attacks with a fair degree of regularity. It has killed more than 400 people in Kenya since 2013. Two years ago, the group killed 67 people in an attack on an upscale shopping mall frequented by expats and wealthy Kenyans. In late 2014, attacks left more than 60 people dead in the town of Mandera. A few months earlier, Al-Shabab militants killed dozens of people in an attack near the coastal town of Lamu

After the Garissa attack, Kenyatta pledged that his government would respond “in the severest ways possible,” adding, “I want you to know that our security forces are pursuing the remaining accomplices. We will bring all of them to justice.” Al-Shabab responded immediately, promising further attacks on Kenya. “Kenyan cities will run red with blood,” the group’s spokesman said in a statement. “No amount of precaution or safety measures will be able to guarantee your safety, thwart another attack or prevent another bloodbath.” On Monday, Kenya launched airstrikes in Somalia targeting Al-Shabab camps near the Kenya-Somalia border.

Reform efforts

Kenyatta has made nominal efforts to address the corruption in Kenya’s security sector. Last year, amid deteriorating security and after public pressure, he sacked Inspector General of Police David Kimaiyo, Internal Security Cabinet Secretary Joseph Ole Lenku and National Intelligence Service Director Michael Gichangi. But Kenya’s problem transcends individuals, and personnel changes will do little to address it.

Over the past few months, the Kenyan Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission has been compiling a list of public officials involved in corruption. On March 27, Kenyatta asked senior government officials mentioned in the commission’s report to step down for 60 days, pending an investigation. At least five Cabinet secretaries have temporarily resigned, underscoring the pervasive nature of corruption in the administration.

As Al-Shabab faces increased pressure from Somali and foreign fighters in Somalia, Kenya must adjust to the group’s new tactics in order to avoid being an easy target.

Kenyatta ordered police recruits to report to the training college and reaffirm their pledge to protect Kenyan citizens. A local court suspended the president’s order, citing allegations of malpractice during recruitment, a systemic problem that has become a hallmark of the Kenyan police.

Security contracts have become a feeding trough for corrupt officials. In 2002, for example, Kenya entered into multimillion-dollar contracts with shadowy British companies to supply forgery-proof passports and forensic labs and to construct a defense command center, among other things, in what has been dubbed the Anglo Leasing scam. The goods and services were never rendered, and corruption has left the security sector weak and disorganized.

Securing Kenya’s borders

Undoubtedly, Kenya faces a serious and credible security threat emanating from Somalia. This threat has been exacerbated since Kenya’s intervention. Its involvement in the fight against Al-Shabab was premised on ending Somalia’s decades of instability; Kenya’s tourism industry, a huge foreign exchange earner, has long suffered because of its neighbor’s lawlessness. But the intervention has rendered Kenya even less secure.

Among Nairobi’s defense strategies is the building of a wall along the notoriously porous border with Somalia to prevent militants from entering Kenya. The economics and effectiveness of a wall to keep Al-Shabab fighters out of Kenya renders the whole enterprise suspect. Building the wall assumes that all Al-Shabab members come from Somalia and ignores the group’s cells in Kenya and easy routes through neighboring Uganda and Tanzania. In fact, the suspected mastermind of the Garissa attack was a Kenyan schoolteacher from the town, and one of his accomplices was a son of a Kenyan government official. Besides, there is no proof that the procurement process for the wall’s construction will not be mired in another corruption scandal.

Kenyatta, who inherited the Somalia war from his predecessor, has declared that Kenyan Defense Forces will stay in Somalia until the job is done. While his resolve is admirable, a closer look suggests that foreign forces don’t act altruistically. Many Kenyan analysts argue that a withdrawal from Somalia would not make Kenya safer and would make Nairobi appear to be capitulating to Al-Shabab’s demands.

Regardless, Kenya needs to have an explicit exit strategy, because its open-ended stay is metastasizing from liberation to an unsustainable occupation. Furthermore, the Kenyan forces’ alleged involvement in the illegal charcoal trade that partly funds Al-Shabab raises serious concerns.

The key problem with Kenya’s Somalia mission is its lack of clarity. What does its endpoint look like? Does Nairobi have a clear timeline of when its troops will leave Somalia? This is not a call for Kenyans to pack up their bags today. But with a well-defined timetable for withdrawal, Kenya could concentrate on strengthening its domestic security.

Al-Shabab’s recent loss of territory (including the lucrative port of Kismayo) and the decimation of the group’s mid- and high-level officials by Western drone attacks have turned the armed group into a murderous and macabre outfit. Its targeting of schools and students — as well as the holding of hostages for hours — underscores its evolution toward desperate brutality. As Al-Shabab faces increased pressure from Somali and foreign fighters in Somalia, Kenya must adjust to the group’s new tactics in order to avoid being an easy target.

Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a security and policy analyst on the Horn of Africa and Great Lakes regions.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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