After Garissa Killings, Kenyan Catholics Seek Answers, Offer Solace

The problem of the radicalization of young people is the most challenging battle as Kenya responds to radical Islamic violence

Students of the Garissa University College in eastern Kenya should have been sitting this week for their end of semester examinations, at the end of which they would have joined their families for holidays. Instead, close to 150 of those families will have funerals for sons and daughters who were murdered a week ago today, on Holy Thursday, by Al-Shabab gunmen who singled out Christian victims. About 80 other students are nursing gunshot wounds in hospitals in Garissa and Nairobi. Some families are yet to locate their relatives, one week after the attack.

The Kenyan government declared three days of national mourning, which culminated in a candle-lit vigil at Nairobi’s Uhuru (Freedom) park on the evening of April 7th. Hundreds of young people turned up to mourn their colleagues. They expressed shock but also made known their solidarity with the families of those killed and injured.

John Cardinal Njue, the Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB), while strongly condemning the attacks also announced that the Catholic Church would commit herself to “activate the parish networks for our Christian faithful to lend their support and prayers.” Cardinal Njue further invited priests, Church institutions, and other Christian groups to “journey with the victims and families of the terror attacks by providing them with psycho-social support at the Parish community levels”. This invitation from the Archbishop of Nairobi is, I think, very important as I suspect that once the media attention is eventually directed to other matters, the families will be left to their own devices. The support of the local communities, therefore, will be critical for each family, some of which—from the stories I have seen—were hoping that their sons and daughters would come back to help support them upon completion of their studies.

Cardinal Njue’s statement expressed hope that the Kenyan government would get to the bottom of the problem of terrorism and radicalization. A day after the attack, the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior stated that the terrorists had caught the government “by surprise”. The Garissa University attack is the latest in a series of terrorist attacks (since the Kenyan government sent troops into Somalia in October of 2011), for which the radical group Al-Shabab, with reported ties to al-Qaida, has claimed responsibility. (Ironically, Al-Shabab means “The Youth” in Arabic.)

In November 2015, 28 people were killed when a bus was ambushed by the Al-Shabab in Mandera, a town near the Kenya-Somalia border. A few days later, 36 quarry workers were shot dead in yet another attack; the Al-Shabab claimed responsibility. President Uhuru Kenyatta responded by replacing the police chief and the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior. New security laws were introduced and passed in the National Assembly during a chaotic session that ended in fisticuffs between members of the ruling coalition and the opposition. The latter felt that the government had gone overboard, using the pretext of counter-terrorism measures, by introducing laws that they considered retrogressive and infringing upon the basic freedoms of Kenyans, including the freedom of assembly.

However, the problem of the radicalization of young people is the most challenging battle. Many in Kenya were shocked when it was revealed that one of the terrorists in the latest attack, Abdirahman Mohamed, was a law graduate, in 2013, from the University of Nairobi. His father is a serving government official in Mandera in northeastern Kenya. Teachers at Wamy High School in Nairobi, from which Abdirahman graduated seven years ago, described him as “obedient and an A-student”. What then pushed or pulled Abdirahman to join the Al-Shabab? How many more Kenyan youth have left their homes, to join the ranks of the terror group in Somalia? How can local communities help in stemming the tide of young men going to Somalia to receive training in terror activities? These are difficult questions that Muslim leaders, in particular, are now attempting to address.

Kenya’s foreign secretary, Amina Mohamed, herself a Muslim, spoke in a press briefing about this challenge and mentioned the possibility of setting up centers, to “de-radicalize” the youth. Top Kenyan Muslim leaders, drawn from the political class, religious realm, and business community recently held a three-day retreat. One of the main points of their message, after the gathering, was to call for unity. They noted that the terrorists hoped to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims in Kenya in the way they carried out their attacks—separating Christians from Muslims and then going on to kill the Christians. They pointed out the fact that the Al-Shabab regularly attacks the population in Somalia, many of whom are Muslim. However, a significant number of Christians in Kenya still believe that Muslim leaders could do more to speak up against what they perceive as focused aggression against their faith. This sentiment has gained ground after Muslim leaders announced that one of their retreat resolutions was to provide to the authorities a list of people and organizations they suspect are supporting terrorism and terror-related activities in Kenya. Many people are now asking, “Did it have to take the lives of 147 people for you to identify people in the community who are connected to terrorism?”

Somalia has been going through a civil war and has not had a stable government for nearly 25 years. Kenya shares with Somalia a long border of about 1200 kilometres, and is home to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees at the Dadaab camp in northeastern Kenya. The Kakuma camp in the northwest hosts refugees from South Sudan. Some members of Kenya’s parliament are now claiming that the Dadaab camp is being used by the Al-Shabab as a base for terror activities in Kenya. They want the camp closed and the refugees sent back. Others think that closing the Daadab camp will be counter-productive. They point out that a year or two ago, a voluntary repatriation exercise—coordinated by the Kenyan government, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Somali authorities—resulted in just 2000 refugees going back. The security situation in Somalia, they say, is not optimal for the refugees to go back and believe that a forced return would be disastrous.

It is a complex and rapidly changing situation, with many moving parts, which I, as a young man living in Kenya, cannot claim to fully comprehend. In a March 2011 panel presentation at the “Church in Need” conference in Wurzburg, Germany, the Archbishop of Abuja, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, spoke about “Myths and Realities of Muslim-Christian relations in Nigeria”. In his speech, he called for a “careful discernment of the many stories that we hear”, making reference to how the international (and even local) media have reported incidences of violence in his country, often with “little or no time for detailed analysis of causes and circumstances”.

Pope Francis, in his message to Cardinal Njue following the attack at university in Garissa, called upon “all those in authority to redouble their efforts to work with all men and women in Kenya to bring an end to such violence and to hasten the dawn of a new era of brotherhood, justice and peace.” This is a task that Kenyan Catholics will be reflecting on as their bishops prepare to go to Rome for their ad limina visit in a few days time. In a week that also marks the 21st anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, Catholics in Kenya and across Africa can find wisdom and guidance in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Africae Munus (on the Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace), given by Pope Benedict XVI at Ouidah in Benin in November 2011. Right from the first paragraph of the document, Benedict reminded the Church in Africa that “it is called, in the name of Jesus, to live reconciliation between individuals and communities and to promote peace and justice in truth for all.”

Africae Munus also identifies dialogue as a key component on the path healing the traumas and conflicts that the continent is living through. “In this anthropological crisis which the African continent is facing paths of hope will be discovered by fostering dialogue among the members of its constituent religious, social, political, economic, cultural and scientific communities.”

While the challenge being faced in Kenya has its unique local characteristics, terrorism is in itself a serious global concern. The kind of global solidarity I have seen across the world in the wake of the recent attacks has been phenomenal, based on social media feeds (even though some have asked why world leaders did not march like they did on the streets of Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attack). From Cape Town to Caracas, university students have held memorials in honor of their Kenyan colleagues. Global solidarity, therefore, is important in the process of countering a global challenge.

In the meantime, let us not forget the families of the victims of the Garissa University terror attack and of any across the world who suffer violence, oppression, and even death in their communities. Let us pray for them, even as we work for a just and peaceful world. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death shall be no more. And neither mourning, nor crying out, nor grief shall be anymore. For the first things have passed away…” (Rev. 21:4).

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About Allen Ottaro 32 Articles
Allen Ottaro lives in Nairobi, Kenya, where he is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic University Chapel in the Archdiocese of Nairobi. He is a co-founder of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, and is the former national coordinator of MAGIS Kenya.