The Hidden Cost of Al-Shabaab’s Campaign in North-eastern Kenya
The Hidden Cost of Al-Shabaab’s Campaign in North-eastern Kenya
A member of the Kenyan Defence Forces stands guard at the Garissa University campus after an attack by Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab gunmen in Garissa on 2 April 2015. CARL DE SOUZA / AFP
Commentary / Africa 11 minutes

The Hidden Cost of Al-Shabaab’s Campaign in North-eastern Kenya

Four years after attacking a university, Al-Shabaab has sustained its campaign, forcing many teachers, nurses and officials to flee north-eastern Kenya, one of the country’s most neglected regions. Authorities must do more to tackle insecurity, reopen schools and counter the risk of increased militant recruitment.

On 2 April 2015, four gunmen belonging to Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based affiliate of al-Qaeda, began shooting on the campus of Garissa University College, the only major institution of higher learning in north-eastern Kenya. By the time Kenyan special forces ended the 15-hour siege, the militants had killed 148 students, most of them Christians, and injured more than 79. This particularly deadly assault four years ago attracted considerable media attention – and rightly so. Yet what is arguably Al-Shabaab’s most insidious attack on peace and security in Kenya continues to this day, beneath the media’s radar, in less spectacular forms.  

Since 2015, Al-Shabaab has conducted over one hundred small-scale assaults in the north east, killing dozens of soldiers and police, mostly with roadside bombs. This campaign has been devastating for civilians as well, particularly for non-Muslim professionals posted to the north east from elsewhere in Kenya. A series of Al-Shabaab assaults targeting these professionals, who constitute a significant proportion of the workforce, has driven hundreds of teachers, nurses, public administrators and construction workers to flee the region. The departure of so many trained professionals from an impoverished part of Kenya has deepened its socio-economic woes, reversing gains of the last two decades.

Primary and secondary education is worst affected. In February 2018, following Al-Shabaab’s murder of two teachers, authorities reportedly closed 250 schools in the region. Some have since reopened, but close to one hundred across the three north-eastern counties on the Somalia border are operating with a headmaster and no other teaching staff. Under pressure from worried teachers, the state has transferred about 2,000 of them out of the area.

Kenya should make a priority of boosting educational capacity in the north east.

As Crisis Group noted in a September 2018 report, Kenya has made some progress in rolling back Al-Shabaab’s infiltration from Somalia, primarily through greater community engagement and better intelligence gathering, and despite the occasional major attack in cities such as the 15 January assault on an upscale hotel complex in Nairobi. Yet in Kenya, as in Tanzania, Al-Shabaab continues to exploit a sense of political and economic exclusion among the Muslim minority in order to win new recruits. Allowing thousands of students in the north to go without a proper education deprives them of the skills and opportunities that schooling can bring and risks further stunting the region’s development. Moreover, it could deepen the sense of abandonment by the state that many feel, thus hindering Kenya’s efforts to curb Islamist militancy and potentially even fuelling Al-Shabaab’s recruitment.

Kenya should make a priority of boosting educational capacity in the north east. National authorities, working closely with northern elected officials, should fast-track a plan to invest in training teachers from the north east, given that Al-Shabaab is more interested in attacking the mainly Christian professionals from outside the region than in persecuting locals. But the state must also improve security to make all teachers and other professionals safer and to encourage those who have left to return to their jobs. It should recruit more police reservists from the north east and build police stations in the countryside, where schools and other facilities are most vulnerable to attack.

A Troubled Past

For decades, colonial and post-colonial authorities in Kenya have poured money and resources into wealthier areas of the country near the capital, at the expense of rural peripheries. By most accounts, the three north-eastern counties – Garissa, Wajir and Mandera, which are dominated by Muslim ethnic Somalis – are the biggest victims of this unequal development. Garissa, Wajir and Mandera are among the seven poorest of Kenya’s 47 counties, with poverty levels of 66 per cent, 63 per cent and 78 per cent, respectively, compared to 36 per cent across the country. In each of these three counties, more than three fifths of the inhabitants live on less than $1.90 per day. The average primary school enrollment rate in these counties is 37 per cent, compared to 77 per cent nationally. The region lags behind the rest of the country in infrastructure and health services as well.

The state’s human rights abuses were rampant, including multiple instances of massacres perpetrated by the army and police, according to rights groups.

The north east also has a history of political violence. Immediately after Kenyan independence in 1963, the government of Somalia backed irredentist claims upon the Somali-inhabited territory of northern Kenya, resulting in an armed insurgency opposing rule from Nairobi. The ensuing war was widely known as the Shifta War. The government repealed the state of emergency in the region only in November 1991. During this period, the state’s human rights abuses were rampant, including multiple instances of massacres perpetrated by the army and police, according to rights groups. The worst of these cases was the 1984 Wagalla massacre in Wajir, when soldiers killed as many as one thousand people in a punitive disarmament operation following clan clashes. Other slaughters attributed to security forces occurred in Garissa (the Bulla Karatasi/Garissa Gubai massacre) in 1980 and in Mandera (the Malka Mari massacre) in 1981. The state also subjected the region to a form of collective punishment through systematic neglect, as Crisis Group noted in a 2012 report.

Modest Progress

A subtle change began with the advent of multi-party democracy and economic liberalisation in the early 1990s. Over the next two decades, the north east saw some modest socio-economic and political development. Ethnic Somalis have acquired some political representation, including an increasing number of appointments to crucial government posts. Their clout in business has also grown significantly. Similarly, income and health indicators have risen, though the majority of the poor fail to benefit from these improvements. Under President Mwai Kibaki (2003-2013), the government introduced universal free primary education and affirmative action in higher education, boosting the number of students from the north east admitted to public universities.

In this period, the north east also became a much more secure place. Between 2001-2011, local administrators, including chiefs, worked with the security forces to corral the highway bandits who were once prevalent. In 2010, Interpol named Garissa town, the biggest town in the north, as the “safest city in East and Central Africa”.

The Kenyan government has spent little to improve access to education in regions such as the majority-Muslim north east.

Al-Shabaab’s Retaliatory Attacks

All this progress began to falter in October 2011 when Kenya deployed troops in southern Somalia with the goal of dislodging Al-Shabaab from its bases there. Almost immediately, Al-Shabaab launched a series of retaliatory terror attacks in north-eastern Kenya, along the Indian Ocean coast and in Nairobi to pressure Kenya to withdraw. In the north, the al-Qaeda affiliate mainly targeted security installations and churches, as well as bars and restaurants popular with professionals – teachers, civil servants and others – from Nairobi and inland counties.

Many of the victims were Christians, for reasons that have historical roots. Christian missionaries who established the first Western-style schools during Kenya’s colonial period built most of them near the agricultural settlements in Kenya’s central highlands. The people they converted were thus also the country’s first Western-educated cohort. Even today, Christians make up a disproportionate share of the country’s professional and managerial classes. (Christians also make up about 84 per cent of the population overall, and Muslims about 11 per cent.) Moreover, since independence, the Kenyan government has spent little to improve access to education in regions such as the majority-Muslim north east, meaning that natives of these areas lack opportunities to become qualified for white-collar government and teaching jobs.  Accordingly, in the north east, as in other rural parts of Kenya, most of the white-collar government workers and teachers come from elsewhere.

Initially, Al-Shabaab’s attacks in the north east were small in scale, with casualties ranging between one and six. These raids continued, but since 2013 Al-Shabaab also begun to stage large-scale attacks, resulting in many deaths. These operations appeared designed to stoke tensions between Christians and Muslims, polarising the country along religious lines, with the hope of triggering wider fighting.

Teachers have borne the brunt of attacks partly due to their large numbers, and the fact they are spread throughout the vast region, including in remote villages close to the Somalia border. Al-Shabaab contends that secular education imparts “corrupt foreign ideas to Muslim children”.

Click on the image below to view a slideshow displaying data relating to attacks attributed to Al-Shabaab between 2011 and 2018

On 22 November 2014, gunmen shot 28 passengers on a bus travelling from Mandera, in north-eastern Kenya, to Nairobi. Seventeen of those killed were Christian teachers heading home for December holidays. Others were Christian health workers and casual labourers. In a subsequent massacre in Mandera, assailants killed 36 quarry workers, execution-style, almost all of them Christians from central Kenya.

After these attacks, Christian non-local professionals working in the region left in large numbers. Today, skilled labourers are scarce and civil servants are in severely short supply. The region is back in the doldrums.

Economic sectors hurt the most by Al-Shabaab activity include construction, transportation and communications. Due to insecurity, engineers have abandoned construction sites in areas like Mandera. Even feasibility studies for new roads in the region have stalled, especially in the troubled hotspots. Al-Shabaab’s constant destruction of communication masts along the border has forced residents to travel long distances to make telephone calls. These attacks have also locked many locals out of the vibrant mobile phone money transfer system that has become a vital avenue of commercial activity in Kenya. Lack of communication lines has also limited the capacity of security forces to respond quickly to attacks. Hundreds of health centres have been closed due to lack of staff. Community health workers are partly filling the void, but they cannot be permanent substitutes for better trained professionals.

After the November 2014 bus incident, and when schools reopened early the next January, over 1,000 teachers refused to return, fearing for their lives. They demonstrated outside the Nairobi headquarters of the Teachers Service Commission, the institution mandated with managing teachers countrywide, to demand transfers to safer counties. In the end, the Commission gave in and transferred 900 of them.

Another attack, targeting Qarsa Primary School in Wajir on 16 February 2018, killed two teachers and one of their spouses. Though it was a much smaller attack than the bus assault, the impact was almost similar. Large numbers of teachers again agitated for transfer. The Commission transferred over 1,120 more teachers, 900 from Wajir county alone, leading to the additional closure of hundreds of schools.

The education ministry should raise its targets for educating students in the north.

As teachers desert the region, the poor, who cannot afford expensive private schools, are hardest hit. Hundreds of schools now operate well below capacity. “It is catastrophic for a region that has always lagged behind in all important human development indicators. We are going to the lowest of the low”, said education professor Mohamed Elmi in Wajir in July. A regional education manager concurred: “Since Al-Shabaab attacks began targeting teachers, academic performance has dropped”.

No Easy Solutions

In dealing with this difficult situation, the most discussed options focus on employing more locals to offer needed services. For the time being, this option will not by itself suffice as there are not enough skilled professionals from the north east to fill the available slots. Nonetheless, building up local cadres of professionals could help begin to address the problem in the medium term. The three county governments, together with national government institutions, need to invest promptly and heavily in supporting institutions that can train these cadres, such as teachers colleges, medical schools and technical and vocational colleges that offer an education to technicians and artisans. (Many construction workers abandoned their posts following the wave of attacks in 2014.)

The education ministry should raise its targets for educating students in the north and build more schools, enlarging the pipeline for students who can qualify for admission to institutions of higher learning, including teacher training colleges. Secondary school facilities in the north east are more dispersed than in other parts of the country, meaning that many students do not enjoy access to a high school education. Given the limited opportunities for students in the north, the government should actively consider an affirmative action program that allocates a higher number of places in medical schools, teachers colleges and technical training institutions to students from the north. Officials have begun deliberations along these lines but should speed up their work. The government should restart previous affirmative action programs that raised the number of north-eastern students admitted to public universities, by marginally lowering the entry grades required.

National authorities should also support local elected officials who work to fill the teacher gap, including by offering them financial support to hire qualified teachers at the local level when they can be identified. While the devolution of power and resources introduced under Kenya’s new constitution has brought governance closer to the grassroots, and has meant that each of the three north-eastern counties receives millions of dollars in devolved funds each year, county budgets are nonetheless already stretched by the challenge of providing services in the impoverished region.  These counties would be hard pressed to channel funds to recruit teachers absent help from the national treasury in Nairobi.

Leaving the region’s economy to drift further downward and its youngsters without proper schooling would create tremendous human costs that its residents should not have to bear.

The most important solutions, however, are tackling insecurity and stopping the exodus of professionals. It is a challenge to secure this huge, sparsely populated and poorly policed region, which shares a porous border with Somalia 638km long. Police stations are few and far between, and they too have come under attack by militants from across the border.

State authorities have made some efforts to enhance security. Over recent months, the government has recruited hundreds of police reservists and placed them along the border, where they guard the most vulnerable schools and other vital installations. The Teachers Service Commission also has redeployed the remaining few non-local teachers to safer areas. More can be done, however. The education ministry, the teachers’ employer, needs to better coordinate with officials in charge of security at the county and sub-county levels, in order to offer teachers updated risk assessments. Senior officials in charge of security in the region should recruit more reservists, and post officers to as many settlements as possible, while seeking to ensure that they can still mass a force large enough to repel Al-Shabaab attacks.

The status quo is unsustainable. Leaving the region’s economy to drift further downward and its youngsters without proper schooling would create tremendous human costs that its residents should not have to bear. Moreover, while the appeal of militancy defies generic description and varies from individual to individual, denying educational opportunities to youth in an already poor and under-served periphery cannot help in the battle against Al-Shabaab. As it works to restore security and the services that have been lost in the north east, the Kenyan government should pay particular attention to reversing Al-Shabaab’s campaign to hollow out educational institutions. Failure to do so could come at a huge cost to the rest of Kenya down the road.

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