The Westgate Mall Attack: From Reaction to Action

As the dust settles in Nairobi, some are questioning Kenya's involvement in Somalia. That's not the real issue, argues David Hornsby.
By: /
September 24, 2013
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Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Assistant Dean of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

The worst is over at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, where terrorists belonging to the Al-Shabaab group carried out a violent attack, killing more than 60 people. But emotions are running high as many in Kenya and around the world struggle to make sense of what happened. It isn't easy to stop reacting and start thinking through the implications of this event, but it is necessary if we are to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions. Al-Shabaab, the Islamic extremist group responsible, has links to al-Qaeda and is based out of southern Somalia. The attack it carried out in Nairobi has had a significant international impact. The victims come from a broad cross section of nationalities and two Canadians count among the dead.  Such a tragedy always results in understandably visceral reactions. Outpourings of grief, sadness, and anger, and and painful questions – why us, why Kenya, why now – ripple out from the scene of the crime.  The inevitable answers don’t offer much solace; Kenya has been fighting Al-Shabaab in Somalia now for a long time and the threat of a strike within Kenya has always been promised. Not to diminish the horror of what has happened, but it is amazing that Kenya has avoided such an attack for so long.

Emotional reactions of this past week are likely to quickly give way to introspection, recriminations regarding interfering in the affairs of other states, and calls for policy reversals.  South Africa experienced this recently when its troops got caught up in the fight against the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic.  Public outcry at the death of 16 South Africa soldiers resulted in a complete withdrawal of South African defence forces from the CAR.  Now that the stabilization force there to ensure rebel disarmament and a return to order has departed, there is lawlessness and chaos.

The call to reconsider policy in the aftermath of tragedy is reasonable and should always be welcomed in a democracy. But in moments like this, we must also remember that leadership often comes at a cost.

Kenya is a leader in the East Africa region. It has taken a responsible role in the effort to defeat this extremist group and restore political stability to Somalia, despite the risk to its own security.  Somalia, Kenya’s long-suffering neighbour, has seen much upheaval, uncertainty, and instability; it has the unfortunate honour of being the case study for a ‘failed state’ and we are all aware that piracy is a regular occurrence just off its coast.  There are signs that things are slowly turning around in Somalia but it is still a long way off from being able to address its sectarian divisions and extremist problems.

An attack like that at Westgate Mall has always been part of the risk Kenya runs by  involving itself Somalia’s issues. Whether this risk could have been avoided by staying out is really not a question of import. In fact, I would argue that it has never been an option for Kenya not to get involved; political instability in Somalia is also a Kenyan problem. Kenya is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world – Dadaab – which is primarily made up of Somalians fleeing civil conflict in their home country. Many Somalians have also made a life in Kenya through regular migration (even the Kenyan foreign minister is of Somali dissent). The peoples of Kenya and Somalia are intimately intertwined and interdependent.    

As such, Kenya maintains little option to be a passive player in the affairs of its neighbour as the risks associated with (further) mass migration of refugees, the entrenchment of extremist authority, and the continued failure of the Somali government to impose law and order, pose a real threat to political instability in Kenya.  The conclusion to draw from this tragedy is not that Kenya needlessly puts itself at risk – the risk of inaction far outweighs that posed by al-Shabaab.

It is in these moments when regional and international cooperation around security issues should be the topic of greatest importance.  Rhetoric that advocates retreating within one’s own borders is understandable, but misguided. Indeed, its seems that the East African Community could benefit from a renewed effort to cooperate in light of this attack in Kenya, especially as Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania all get involved in someway shape or form in the ongoing conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The big questions thus remain: How can Africa’s cooperative security agenda be moved forward? And who is best placed to do this? It is the African Union, with its peace and security architecture, the UN, or a more regional/localized approach? What will it take to prevent another attack like the one in Nairobi? The best chance at answering them will come from turning outward with hope rather than inward with anger and fear.