Searching for immediate answers to these complex questions, the mainstream western press has been all too quick to frame it in ways that both benefit Al Shabaab’s extremist ploys for publicity, but also within frameworks of the “global war on terror” and religious based violence, refracted through perspectives far removed from the East African context.

Many have focused narrowly on the fact that militants singled out Christian victims, and that the U.S. has been involved in drone strikes targeting Al Shabaab in neighboring Somalia. Through the prism of the “global war on terror,” these are easy arguments to make but offer a narrow and incomplete view of violence and insecurity in Kenya.

As the 24 hour media cycle is already moving on, the representations of this event will continue to linger. While these stories are important, they are also not representative of a diverse country the size of France, with a population of 45 million. To understand the complexity of this horrific event, one needs to situate it in the context of both Kenya’s present and past, the nation’s regional ties to Somalia and the ways violence and insecurity are historically represented more broadly in Africa. 

Representing Kenya through Violence 2008-present

In early 2008, much of the world’s view of Kenya as a peaceful oasis in a region fraught by political violence was shattered when election related protests turned violent. Previously, Kenya struggles with political transitions had been marked by sporadic violence but paled in comparison to regional representations of Genocide in Rwanda and civil war in Sudan and Somalia. However, when more than 1,000 people were killed with 600,000 displaced in a two month period of violence related to a contested presidential election, the narrative changed and offered simplistic views of Kenya’s political struggles through stereotypical portrayals.

During the first few months of 2008, reports framed Kenya’s complex post-election violence through the simplistic, pejorative and dismissive lens of “tribe,” failing to situate the post-election violence in a specifically Kenyan historical context. With an unrelenting focus on the “ethnic” character of the violence, western media outlets failed to inform readers about the complexity of the conflict, the diversity of the perpetrators, and historic issues at stake. Little was discussed of Kenya’s previous bouts of election related violence in 1992 or 1997, or that some of the underlying causes of the violence were a result of festering issues about land rights and the unresolved politics of divide and rule dating back to the colonial era. The complexity of the political violence was often lost on readers as descriptions of savage violence overshadowed more rational explanations. Equipped with images of young men wielding spears, machetes and firing bows and arrows, the western press continued to inform readers with stereotypical tropes that Kenyan communities had “awakened ancient ethnic rivalries” and were “settling the score the old fashioned way.”

Kenya’s post-election violence changed the global view of this East African nation from romanticized wildlife safaris amidst pristine landscapes to a broad African story of violence rooted in simple and stereotypical ideas about identity.  Even with vehement critiques of the reporting and a peaceful election in 2013, media coverage of Kenya has often overrepresented the threat of violence in the region. As Kenyan scholar and novelist Mukoma wa Ngugi argues “journalists have been left behind by an Africa moving forward: not in a straight line, but in fits and starts, elliptically, and still full of contradictions of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, but forward nevertheless.”

For Kenyans and those who study and work in East Africa, these reactions are nothing new, but part of a long history of dismissing the geography and complexity of conflict in Africa as “savage tribalism,” “Christian vs Muslim” or increasingly through the generalized prism of the “global war on terrorism.”  Part of what Chimamanda Adichie has called the peril of the “single story” of Africa, the September 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the June 2014 violence in the coastal community of Mpeketoni offered a similar brew of journalistic vitriol.

Reports of the attack on the upscale Westgate mall in Nairobi were often framed primarily as an attack on a place “frequented by westerns and diplomats.”  Little coverage focused on the fact that the nephew of Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was among the 68 killed, which included a handful of non-Kenyan victims.  Westerners were not specifically targeted in this attack or any others in recent years and Westgate should be viewed with the same critical lens. This attack was alarming to many, and represents Al Shabaab’s desperate efforts since 2011 to strike the Kenyan elite and the nation’s image as a global tourist destination. The fact that the Westgate attack unfolded on international TV only further helped the Al Shabaab narrative of promoting fear, division and insecurity in Kenya.

Less than a year later, another horrific incident struck the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni. Locating the attack with the tag lines like “close to the tourist island of Lamu,” or framing it through titles such as “Somali Extremists Targeting Christians Kill Dozens at Resort” stokes foreign fears and gains global readership, but fails to highlight the political geography and history of the violence. It also does not reflect the way urban violence and global terrorist attacks have been covered in western nations. For instance readers of U.S. media accounts of recent gun violence on the south side of Chicago are not presented with taglines such as “near popular beaches on Lake Michigan.” Or when coordinated terrorist attacks hit London in 2005, the international press did not frame the violence as “at the gates of Buckingham Palace.”

Mpeketoni was originally part of resettlement schemes in the 1960s and 1970s for Kenyans from the central region of the country who lost their land during the colonial period. Due to the politics of regionalism during the era of Kenya’s first president (the current President’s father), many Kikuyu families from the president’s home region settled in this area. In the run up to the 1997 elections there was animosity and some violence in other parts of the coastal region directed against “non-indigenous” communities like the Kikuyu population of Mpeketoni. Comparable to the violence witnessed in 2007-2008 in the Rift Valley used to expel “outsiders” and reclaim lost land, similar tactics were used by local politicians on the coast to rally supporters and frighten opposition voters by inciting violence. So while the attack in Mpeketoni decimated the geographically close, yet politically distant Lamu tourist industry it also sought to incite Kenya’s own contested politics of belonging

The result has been that the coastal regions have felt historically marginalized from the central government for many years and in the last election, Lamu County and the coast overall voted for the opposition in larger numbers than the eventual winner Uhuru Kenyatta. However Mpeketoni represents a small slice of political support for President Kenyatta in the region, which helped Kenyatta carry the Lamu West constituency in the last election by a slim margin. Just like the narrative of the attack on the Westgate mall should have focused more on its symbolic blow to the Kenyatta family and the political elite who shop there, it would also make sense as to why Al Shabaab would target Mpeketoni due to their perceived ties to the ruling government in the past.

Somalia, Al Shabaab and Kenya’s Forgotten North?

Until yesterday, the global focus on Al Shabaab related terrorism in Kenya has focused too much on narrow views of events in Nairobi and along the Kenyan coast. However the attack in Garissa should reinforce the fact almost all of the Al Shabaab related violence in Kenya since 2011 has occurred in the Northeastern Part of the country. Garissa, like many other towns in the region is a marginalized community. For instance, visitors from Nairobi are of often asked the wry question “how’s Kenya.” This query reflects both a physical and political divide in the country, where the dry and sparsely populated north, has often been left behind in national development schemes or worse been historical targets of violent actions by the Kenyan state.

From 1963-1968 Kenya engaged in a protracted civil conflict with Somali secessionists in the Northeastern region in struggle known as the Shifta War. The legacy of this conflict has bred deep mistrust of the Kenyan Somali community. In 1984, in an attempt to disarm Somali communities in the Wajir border regions, over 5,000 men were detained at the Wagalla airstrip, and thousands were reported tortured and murdered by Kenyan security forces in what is now known as the Wagalla Massacre. The divide between Northeastern regions of the country and the central government has only increased, especially in light of the 100,000s of Somali refugees who have crossed into Kenya ever since the collapse of the Somali state in 1991. 

By 2011, when Kenyan Defense forces entered Somalia to combat a growing threat from Al Shabaab, this history of marginalization and insecurity in the Northeastern borderlands was distinctively absent from popular media coverage. The actions of the Kenyan state since 2011, have only increased the marginalization of the Somali community in the country, with frequent roundups based on ethnic profiling. Even two weeks ago, in response to the growing insecurity in Northeastern Kenya, a Senator from Mandera County claimed “We feel the government is treating Mandera as if it’s not part of Kenya. It’s not being given the same level of attention in terms of addressing the terrorist threats, the same level of attention Nairobi or Lamu or other parts of this country has been given.”

Thus to really understand the brutal attack in Garissa, one has to take a more local historical perspective and move beyond fitting it neatly into the global war on terrorism. For scholars of Kenya, the attack in Garissa is not solely about religious based violence on a university campus, but has to be seen in the broader historical context. However, the complexity of these events often are distinctly absent from media discourse which can have a detrimental impact on policy discussions and global perceptions of regions far removed from the violence and insecurity. 

Matt Carotenuto is Associate Professor of History & Coordinator of African Studies at St. Lawrence University. In addition he also the on-campus coordinator for St. Lawrence’s longstanding Study abroad program in Kenya. His research and published work has explored the politics of identity and violence in Kenyan history. With Katherine Luongo he is the author of the forthcoming book Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging. He can be reached at [email protected]

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