The scenes are becoming mind-numbingly familiar as are the number of casualties. Terrorists resort to spectacular violence to fulfil political objectives and apocalyptic fantasies — and because their acts always have an audience in mind, there is a tendency to escalate levels of brutality. Terrorists belonging to al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based group affiliated to al-Qaeda, have been progressively scaling up attacks in Kenya, purportedly in revenge for the latter’s participation in the African Union’s efforts to counter them in Somalia.
The group attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013, killing 67 people, and last December it shot dead 36 non-Muslim quarry workers in north Kenya. On April 2 it laid siege to a university college in Garissa, 90 kilometres from the Somalia border, isolated Christian students and shot dead at least 148 students and injured 79 others.
Over the last 20 years, the violence in Kenya has been rooted in the instability in the Horn of Africa, where rebels were ousted from the capital Mogadishu in a bitter civil war with the help of the African Union forces but still managed to control large swathes of the countryside.
Al-Shabaab also seeks to drive a wedge between the Christian majority and Muslim minority in Kenya in an effort to recruit fighters. Analysts say al-Shabaab’s efforts are aided by widespread poverty and the heavy-handedness of Kenya’s security forces. They fear that an overreaction to the killings in Garissa will worsen the situation.
All this is bad news for Africa, which is otherwise making rapid economic strides. According to the World Bank, 11 of the 20 fastest-growing economies of the world are in Africa, with Ghana, Mozambique and Angola leading the surge. School enrolment, life expectancy and real incomes have improved dramatically — and the continent’s GDP is expected to grow 6% each year over the next decade.
Terrorism, which thrives in badly-governed spaces, is, however, a challenge that undermines the continent’s changing narrative. Kenya and Nigeria, which battles Boko Haram, cannot afford to lose this battle.