147 young Kenyan students were gunned down and killed at the beginning of this month. Did any one notice? If 147 French people had been killed at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris, the world would have been ablaze with the news, but when young Africans are killed in in Garissa in Kenya, the world hardly looks up.

Have you even heard of Garissa, or know in which country it exists? Garissa until recently was a small village in the North East of Kenya. I lived for five years in Kenya, and travelled widely, but never went near Garissa. Have a look at a Google map of Garrissa and you will find the town almost isolated. Why is this killing significant? Why are militant young people across the Islamic world turning their backs on the Western ways of life and turning to old and violent traditions in Islam?

Students at Wits University in South Africa march in remembrance of Garissa

Students at Wits University in South Africa march in remembrance of Garissa

Let me try and provide some tentative answers, by examining the way of life around Garrissa and the Horn of Africa, and by a brief examination of a bit of the history of Horn. Britain first sent in armed forces to the area over a hundred years ago. Today we need to mourn the dead, yet we owe it to ourselves, and the people of that region, to understand what is going on.

Personally my gut rises up when anyone tells me, these are ‘terrorists’, as that word automatically says, these people are less than human, and therefore they can be exterminated. Yet when people are needlessly killed, I look for explanations: why have the militants become so violent?

In the last ten years, there has been a huge splurge of violent, messianic movements across North Africa, and in the Arab world. Each movement has deep historical roots, and in each area the peoples have become deeply disturbed by continual upheavals of personal lives; the European invasions in the 1880s, during the two World Wars, by the Israeli explosion and expulsion of the Palestinians, by the more recent invasions of Iraq, Libya and Syria and finally by the failure of so many communities to find development.

The messianic movement of Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa, which killed 147 young students is part of these deep disturbances.

A huge area of Northern Kenya is desert. Since time immemorial only nomadic peoples have lived in this region.

Nomadic peoples are so far away from Western people’s consciousness, that few people will have ever given this way of life a thought. Nomads are some of the world’s survivors, they are hardy and have learnt to live in regions where the rainfall is so low, that you and I would die in days. And northern Kenya has some of the lowest rainfall in the world. The Northeast of Kenya is Somali nomadic country, and has been for hundreds of years.

Look again at the Google map and notice the straight line which demarks the boundary between Somalia and Kenya. Europeans who were dividing up Africa between themselves drew straight lines on maps in 1884. When an area had not been ‘explored’, they drew lines with a ruler!

What has all this to do with the attack by Al Shahaab on students at Garrisa University?

The news makers reporting these events provide too little context. The newsmakers want us to be horrified with these ghastly murders. Our starting point ought to be that that the Al Shahaab fighters are coming from some of the poorest of the poorest with a long history of struggle against the West.

Somalia itself has been for the last 150 years a land of poverty. Their livelihoods come from the sea, fishing, and from the land, with their camels cows and sheep, which they have always taken from place to place to find water.

Somalia, like the rest of the East African Coastline, is Islamic. Long before the West arrived, the Arabic world had been trading all the way down this coast, and Islam had taken hold hundreds of years ago. The Somalis are in this sense no different to the entire peoples of the East Coast of Africa.

In the modern age, Somalis remain nomadic. Nomads are everywhere a pain for officials, who live by static borders. Nomads know no borders. Somalis are all over the world. They were the long distant lorry drivers when I lived in Kenya, there were groups of Somalis in every city and town in the regions all the way south to South Africa.

The area we call Somalia was first colonised by the East India Company, 1840 to 1866. This colonisation was followed by Italy, France and Britain all playing a part. Ethiopia claimed the Ogden. Mohammad Abidda Hasan carried one of the great risings against the British invasions in the region in 1899. Hasan’s soldiers were brutally suppressed; he remains one of the great heroes of the people of the area. Hassan’s crusade was to drive the Christian colonisers into the sea. Al Shabaab has taken over this role just over a 100 years later. Hassan himself was only finally defeated in 1920.

Since that time, and particular from the 1960s, the Somali peoples have attempted to unite their peoples after the divisions created by the Western colonisers. Part of this was undertaken by President Said Barre, a Marxist. His attempts failed and under US tutelage, the country began to break up into clans. I am simplifying history, but development failed, and Somalia and its peoples have undergone many humiliations; the entire area remains dirt poor.

Its neighbours, Kenya and Uganda, have taken up arms on behalf of the Western countries to suppress the new al Shabaab movement. These neighbours have invaded Somalia, with all the dangers that occur when neighbouring states invade.

In the wake of the Garissa massacre, Kenya has scapegoated Dadaad, the world’s largest refugee camp and home to 350,000 Somalis as a “nursery for al Shabaab”. The camp will be dismantled and 350,000 people – a medium sized city – forceably moved across the border. This will not make the situation any better.

Over the last 50 years, the new previously colonised states of the Islamic world have attempted to raise their standards of living, and each effort has been suppressed.

This is a long story. The Al Shabaabs have risen to recreate their own history, and dignity. They need to be recognised, they need support for their fish and animal industries. Development is the answer to the violence, which will go on and on until we realise that these people are like ourselves. If we treat them with the dignity they now demand, there is a change of peace.


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Roger van Zwanenberg

Dr Roger van Zwanenberg is the former managing director of Pluto Books.

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