In the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, Sept. 21-24, which resulted in at least 67 deaths, many people have wondered who the perpetrators, known as al-Shabaab, are, and why they carried out such a murderous assault.
While the Somali group has been active for less than a decade, the antagonistic relationship between Somalis and Kenyans dates back to the pre-1960s colonial days.
In the colonial era, the territories inhabited by the Somali people were divided between Britain, France, Italy, and Ethiopia. But only the old British and Italian Somaliland colonies were united as one nation, in 1960.
Upon independence, therefore, the new Somalia laid claims to all of the remaining areas inhabited by Somalis, based on the irredentist idea that all Somalis should be united in one country. In 1977, Somalia fought a war with Ethiopia to try to gain the Ogaden, an area populated by Somalis, but lost.
As for Kenya, which itself gained its independence from Britain, in 1964, its Northern Frontier District, now the North Eastern Province, was handed over to Kenyan nationalists at the end of British colonial rule despite the fact that it is inhabited almost entirely by Somalis.
The Somalis in the region fought a war against Kenyan troops between 1963 and 1967 to join their kin in the Somali Republic to the north. Although the war ended with a ceasefire, the Somalis there still identify and maintain close ties with their kin in Somalia, and see themselves as one people. They number more than two million people, out of Kenya’s total population of 44 million.
The two countries continued to have a troubled relationship. Kenyan forces were engaged in two massacres of ethnic Somalis in the province in 1980 and 1984.
But Somalia itself has been without an effective government since 1991, when the last dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, fled the country. It has been governed, or more accurately misgoverned, by a collection of clan-based “warlords,” who have looted and murdered their way through the country ever since.
As a reaction to this Hobbesian lawlessness, a system of Islamic courts became the main governmental body in much of the country. United into the Islamic Courts Union by 2006, they were eliminated by other Somalis, backed by the Ethiopian military, in a brutal war. But a militant offshoot morphed into the al-Qaeda affiliated Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (Mujahideen Youth Movement), or al-Shabaab.
Ethiopia and Kenya, neither of them Muslim-majority states, have periodically crossed into Somalia ever since then to battle the terrorists. In 2011 their troops entered Somalia in a coordinated attack, known as Operation Linda Nchi, against the al-Shabaab insurgents in southern Somalia.
As well, in November of last year, Kenyan forces launched a military attack on the Garissa district of their own North Eastern Province, inciting violence, raping women and shooting at students; a mass exodus of Somali residents followed.
In return, al-Shabaab has carried out attacks on Ethiopian and Kenyan troops in Somalia, but also against those countries on their own soil as well. We learned the full extent of their retaliation when they wreaked havoc in Nairobi.
By Henry Srebrnik
Special to The Guardian
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.