You are here

#147notjustanumber: Reclaiming the hearts of Kenya’s youth a year on from Garissa

Commentary, 6 April 2016
Terrorism, Africa
To prevent another attack like Garissa, responses need to be grounded where the point of impact is greatest: in the heart and spirit of the youth.

On 2 April, Kenya will mark the one year anniversary of the deadly attack on Garissa University in which gunmen killed 148 people. This death toll – which was earlier thought to be 147, spawning the hashtag #147notjustanumber – was more than double that of the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013.

Responsibility for both was claimed by the Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, and in the case of Garissa, it soon became clear that the principle victims of the assault were young Kenyans from all over the country. 142 of the victims were students, many of whose classmates have now returned following the reopening of the university this January.

As for the attackers, little is known. By the time the siege ended, all but one had died. That exception was Abdirahim Abdullahi, a law graduate in his 20s and son of a government official.

His privilege and education led to many questions as to why a young man with so much promise would be prepared to die for such a cause. But in many ways, Abdullahi’s role points to the fact that the challenge the Kenyan government and society faces is ultimately one of nurturing the heart and spirit of a generation.

Across religious, educational, community and security institutions and organisations, more can be done to engage the youth, their needs and inspirations. This is crucial to preventing violent extremism.

Preventative measures

Every story of radicalisation is unique and the Kenyan response acknowledges that there is no single solution. Responses need to be targeted. Areas of prevention that impact the youth and that are currently receiving attention include education, prisons, civil society engagement, community and religious resilience, youth mentorship, and law enforcement engagement.

The last of these – specifically, a strong relationship between security forces and the youth – is particularly crucial. And in Kenya, relations between police and communities have been difficult for many years. In the last 12 months, for instance, the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit has come under the spotlight following a report that implicated security forces in the disappearances of youths in Kenya’s North East.

As well as trying to improve these relations over the last year or so, the government has also tried to improve the structure, leadership and processes of its several security agencies. Just months before the Garissa attack, the government had changed two key security leadership positions, and since the assault, reforms to the various disparate police agencies have continued.

Gradual change is also taking place across many other security agencies including the National Intelligence Service, National Police, Administrative Police and General Services Unit. Training in these units is raising awareness of how prevention is essential to effectively tackling terrorism.

In terms of directly combatting al-Shabaab, the Kenyan government engaged in a number of prevention measures too. The government looked to freeze the assets of suspected al-Shabaab supporters and implemented an amnesty for former fighters, though implementation has proved problematic. The government also strengthened existing legal provisions contained within the Prevention of Terrorism Act (2012) with further legislation.

Whatever the specific effects of these measures, it is notable that the most devastating attack since Garissa has been against Kenyan soldiers stationed at the el Adde base inside Somalia. Since last April, al-Shabaab’s operations have involved incursions across the border into the Lamu, Garissa and Mandera. But a combination of actions, including

Operation Linda Boni, which started in September 2015 and was aimed at removing insurgents from the large area of bush that borders Somalia, may have made it harder for al-Shabaab to reach inside Kenya in quite the same way.

Reclaiming the youth

In Kenya, demographic and economic trends have left young people feeling more squeezed than ever. It is estimated that almost half of the population is under 14 and a large cohort of Kenyans will soon to transition to adulthood, a phase in which they naturally need guidance as they explore life opportunities.

Yet many young adults face huge employment challenges, especially the poorly educated. And these pressures are being experienced against a backdrop of well-publicised corruption scandals, including allegations of widespread misuse of millions of dollars allocated to the National Youth Service. In some quarters, the sense of hopelessness, frustration, and anger is palpable.

The tactics and rhetoric of al-Shabaab, which means “the youth” in Arabic, appear designed to capture some of the alienation brought about by rapid societal changes and individual frustrations with the aim of igniting broader inter-communal violence. Generally speaking, this strategy does not seem to be succeeding, though another element that adds to some young Muslims’ sense of disillusionment is that many do not feel adequately represented in Muslim society. Community resilience is as important as government response.

Causes of radicalisation of course look very different around the country. In the capital’s slums of Majengo and Eastleigh, for instance, poverty and crime are of central relevance, whereas the drivers on the Coast are more closely related to age-old historical and political grievances as well as land and resources. Fortunately, community and government responses seem to be starting to appreciate that this means different, calibrated responses are needed.

Heart and spirit

There are many options open to the Kenyan government, the country’s communities and leaders, but ultimately, responses need to be grounded where the point of impact is greatest: in the heart and spirit of the youth.

One strategy that can help in this but which is rarely spoken about is to give voice and respect to the youth through media and online debate, which also increases understanding about the complexity of violent extremism and brings focus to the responses available. However, there are also many more areas of untapped potential to positively enable ways of inspiring young Kenyans to apply their energy and skills.

Amongst other things, growing into adulthood is a phase that calls on the young to relate to their elders – and vice versa – be it those in institutions of law and order or leaders in political, familial, educational, spiritual and communal spheres. How those figures of authority engage with the youth is directly related to how violent extremists are able to attract support and gain sympathy.

One year on from the tragic attack on Garissa University, it is crucial that prevention work continues to focus on working with the youth in ways that, amongst other things, to manages their perceptions, understanding and relationships with figures of authority.

This article first appeared in African Arguments,1 April 2016

Photo Credit: MFA Poland.


Martine Zeuthen
Martine Zeuthen
Associate Fellow

Martine Zeuthen is an Associate Fellow in the Terrorism and Conflict programme at RUSI. She is currently based in Kenya and set up RUSI’... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research