Kenya, has the price of being Africa’s appointed ‘frontline state’ on a Global War on Terrorism ever been worth it?


This past week confirmed that Kenya remains a nation that is targeted by those who make themselves guilty of terrorist acts. The ongoing attacks cannot be understood in silos of individual attacks, but within the longer period that in all probability started around 1976 with the famous Entebbe hostage crisis in neighbouring Uganda, followed by the 1980 Norfolk linked PLO incidents. This would later be followed by the 1998 US embassy attack again followed by the 2002 suicide bombers. In May 2003 Washington cautioned Kenya of possible imminent attacks. We also remember the 2014 and 2015 attacks that gripped the nation though it was concentrated in areas close to the Somalian borders. This brings us to the unfolding attacks of 2019. It would be fair to surmise that within a five-year cycle Kenya registers terrorist attacks of varied forms and to varying degrees.

From what the world know is that in recent years there were a number of attacks in this nation particularly in its Garissa, Lamu and Mandera counties. These counties border Somalia, it is therefore here that the attacks from Al Shabaab are most experienced. Kenya has also over time distinguished itself as the country in Africa most likely to be attacked by these groups. It is also believed that its more likely attacks are engineered by the Somali based Al Shabaab extremist group. We know this because Al Shabaab has made threats of this nature in retaliation of Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia.

Kenya’s capital city Nairobi and the coastal areas of Mombasa and Malindi appears to be next target. We have also learned that often the attacks assume indiscriminate forms particularly in places where tourists and foreigners regularly visit. We will recall that during mid-March 2018, the Kenyan Inspector General of the Police reported that a major terrorist attack targeted at Nairobi was averted by the Kenyan Police. As a beef up strategy, Kenyan police in recent years have arrested a number of attackers and prevented some more heinous crimes that include kidnapping, knife attacks. There has also been kidnapping incidents in the Dadaab areas as supported by the Kenyan Police.

The fundamental question that continues lingering is why is Kenya so central in being a recipient of these terrorist attacks, something very unfamiliar and somewhat out of sync with the rest of the over fifty countries that make up Africa? While many answers can be proffered one more consistent one emanates from Kenya’s association with what is understood as old Western interest. In a sense, it then is not fair to speak of Kenyan terrorist attacks without being cognisant of the linkages Kenya share with the Western world. It also then becomes possible to postulate that the attacks in Kenya are aimed at the presence of the Western interest. However how sustainable is this argument? Can It be borne out by other thinkers and or research? It is argued that since the creation of Kenya in 1895, it remained an ally of western governments. To support this claim,

Koome Gikunda an academic remonstrates, “Kenya has been the battlefield of tragic terrorist attacks on Western interests at least twice since 1998. Once when the US embassy was attacked in 1998 and again in 2002 when an Israeli – owned Paradise hotel was bombed. We also know that in 1980 the Jewish-owned Norfolk hotel was attacked by the PLO (Palestinian liberation organisation). According to Gikunda, “Every single attack had a common thread of irony: the majority of the lives lost were Kenyans were not involved in the political dynamic that precipitated the attacks.” He furthermore asserts Kenya is the only African country that has a formal agreement with Washington for the use of local military facilities. The agreement was signed in 1980, and it allows US troops to use Port of Mombasa, as well as airfields at Embakasi and Nanyuki.
He goes on to assert, “these facilities were used to support the disastrous American military intervention in Somalia – an Islamic state in 1992-94 and have been used in the past… to support USA and other coalition forces involved in counter – terrorism operations.”
Gikunda’s paper attempts understanding the political, social and cultural variables that have thrust Kenya into the geo-political limelight insofar as the so-called war on terrorism is concerned. As in the case with other research of Krause and Otenyo a discussion on the security and economic implications of Kenya’s foreign policy position as they relate to the Middle-East conflicts.
According to an exploratory survey report on perceptions on terrorism in Kenya, compiled by Krause and Otenyo ‘Terrorism and the Kenyan Public’, “Respondents feel most threatened not by terrorism but by AIDS and local criminals.” The report furthermore delineates that chief among the terrorist threats acts, is suicide terrorist, a plane crash and stabbing attacks. The report goes further to assert that, “Kenya’s commitment to the war on terrorism may be less a response to Kenyans’ perceptions of terrorist threats than a policy to support the United States against terrorist in exchange for USA support against AIDS and for political stability, democracy, pluralism, and economic development.”

Edward Mogire in his article ‘Counter-terrorism in Kenya, argues, ‘The terrorist attacks of 7 August 1998 raised serious questions about the transnational and domestic terrorism in Kenya and the horn of Africa. What motivated terrorist to target Kenya? Why Kenya. He goes on to assert that in later years Kenya was designated an ‘anchor stat’ and ‘frontline’ in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). According to Mogire, it is argued that while these measures (the ones Kenya took to deal with the threat of terrorism) are aimed at addressing the perceived main causes of terrorism in Kenya, the assumptions upon which they are based are often flawed, do not have domestic support and are externally imposed, primarily by US and hence are often criticised as a tool of US imperialism.

In conclusion, it would appear an understanding of the unfolding terrorist attacks in Kenya cannot be divorced from it’s from inception allegiance to the Western world. It also appears that attacks are essentially against the presence of what is commonly termed Western forces who have a military presence in Kenya. It equally must be noted that Kenyans on aggregate registers the biggest number of victims of these attacks. The twist is that Kenyans’ own analysis of terrorism as occurring in their nation-state does not present for them a threat, that space is long occupied by AIDS etc.

What is and remains interesting is the State has made the war on terrorism a top priority and therefore its policy is defined by the commonly shared mind with the Western world of which some identified Washington as sitting behind the Kenyans epistemology, developed policy, life- prism and concomitant response to these attacks. The key question remains, for how long can the political elite get away with playing in the railway lines of oncoming trains? As is elsewhere the African political elites continue their pursuit of personal economic interest and sacrifice the lives of the poor.

Given the elongated history of the Middle East, Western and Arab world-complex relationships it, unfortunately, must be expected that these attacks in Kenya or any other African nation that shares the same relations with the Western forces, will continue and periodically almost in stage-played sense unfold, for as long as the common interest is shared. One may only wonder what Kenya would have been without its allegiance partners for whom it continues to develop a policy framework in disjuncture with what the average Kenyan considers the real issues that warrant due focus?

Let us again hear Mogire as he so eloquently captures his laments of the consequences of the what I choose to call a policy focus disjuncture, with the following words, ‘Further, the price of these measures has been high in terms of the negation of the civil and human rights and freedoms.”

Being Africa’s baptised frontline state on the War on Global Terrorism has cost the Kenyan nation much more than a few limbs.

Clyde N.S. Ramalaine
Political Commentator and Writer