“Reality is irrelevant; perception is everything.” In its two years in office, the Jubilee Government hardly heeded this wisdom of the American writer Terry Goodkind. It is crystal clear that it fixed its gaze on reality (development and socio-economic transformation), sidelining issues of perception. This has returned an unsavoury verdict on its success.
Jubilee is pushing a revolution without revolutionaries. Its pundits are fairing dismally in what the British author, David Gemmell, described as the “age of style and spin” in which we live — where “perceptions of good and evil slither and shift with the political view of the moment.”
Terrorism is one area where the government is losing the battle for perception. A lot is at stake. A government that fails to protect its citizens risks losing legitimacy. Its sovereignty is also under threat. As a worst- case scenario, protests against insecurity can lead to regime change as domestic foes push for its replacement aided by external interests invoking the famous UN doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect.”
All is not lost, though. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Government has three years to refocus attention on public perception and reverse its fortunes on two priority fronts: Corruption and security relating to al-Shabaab terrorism.
It is the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who quipped that: “I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.” Jubilee has to urgently dispel the seven key myths about terrorism and insecurity after the Garissa University attack.
The first myth is that al- Shabaab’s attacks on Kenya are a revenge mission against the presence of the Kenya Defence Forces inside Somalia.
This is a red herring. The truth is that long before the KDF entered Somalia in October 2011, al-Shabaab was already active in Kenya, kidnapping tourists, aid workers and killing. It was also recruiting and radicalising Muslim youth in refugee camps and towns.
The second myth, and related to the above, is that the withdrawal of KDF troops from Somalia will lead to an automatic cessation of al-Shabaab attacks. This amounts to a policy of appeasement of a dangerous aggressor. It is reminiscent of the Munich Pact of 1938 that British Premier Neville Chamberlain signed with Nazi Germany, enabling Hitler to militarise, annex territories and declare World War II.
As part of the African Union force (Amisom), KDF continues to degrade al-Shabaab’s military capacity. If KDF pulls out, the militants will use that window to overrun Somalia and re-build its military capacity in ways that threaten the Kenyan state.
The third myth is that feeding the al-Shabaab terrorism is a Christian versus Muslim war. The truth is that al-Shabaab is killing Muslims in Somalia, Somaliland and Djibouti as well as Muslims and Christians in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. More Muslims are falling to its sword than Christians!
The fourth myth is that terrorism and radicalisation is a result of poverty and marginalisation of Muslims. Osama bin Laden was a multi-billionaire, not a pauper. Abdirahim Abdullahi, one of the gunmen in the Garissa attack, was a son of a regional government official in Mandera, a law student and intern at a local prestigious bank.
The fifth myth is that al- Shabaab attacks on Westgate, Garissa and other targets are a result of failure by the Jubilee Government to protect its citizens. This logic downplays the African state as a victim of terrorism, casting it as villain. Yet developed countries are not subjected to this peculiar logic.
America was never accused of failure to protect after the September 11 attacks which killed no less than 2,996 people in a single morning. Like Britain after the July 7, 2005 London bombings that killed 52 civilians and injured 700 others, Spain after the 2004 Madrid train bombings which killed 191 people and maimed 1,800 others, or France in the wake of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo shooting, America received an outpouring of sympathy from across the world.
Although citizens of more than 90 countries were also killed in the 9/11 attacks, no country issued travel advisories and security alerts. The sixth myth seeks to buttress the failure to protect thesis. It contrasts an Ethiopia that is able to protect and a Kenya that is unable to protect even though both countries have troops inside Somalia.
The truth is different. Al-Shabaab is an equal opportunity terrorist enterprise. It has attacked Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia and Ethiopia. The exception is Eritrea. Although Ethiopia has adopted a no-nonsense approach to terrorism, in October 2013, a bomb in Addis Ababa killed two people and injured others.
Earlier in January 2012, gunmen killed five, wounded two, kidnapped two and took three Ethiopians hostage in a terrorist attack in the Afar region. In October 2014, the US Embassy in Ethiopia warned that the al-Shabaab was planning to attack Addis Ababa. Almost every month there are attacks on Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s fourth largest city in the Somali (Ogaden) region where the al-Shabaab supported Ogaden Liberation Front (OLF).
The seventh myth is that Kenya’s approach to counter-terrorism is radicalising Somali Muslims. A recent research by the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) claims rather cynically that “Muslim youth have joined extremist groups as a counter-reaction to what they see as government-imposed ‘collective punishment’ driven by the misguided perception that all Somali and Kenyan-Somali nationals are potential terrorists”.
After the Garissa attack, it is also argued that the government decision to suspend 13 hawala or money remittance companies over alleged links with terrorism and to freeze the bank accounts of 86 entities and individuals suspected of financing terrorism is fuelling terrorism. Strong approaches to al-Shabaab are paying off.
The new measures adopted after Garissa are likely to turn the screws on al-Shabaab and its supporters in Kenya.
Prof Kagwanja is Chief Executive, Africa Policy Institute, and former government adviser