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21.06.2019 Kenya

Garissa ruling revives doubts about Kenya's war in Somalia

By Christina Okello - RFI
REUTERS/Baz Ratner
LISTEN JUN 21, 2019
REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A day after Kenyan judges convicted three suspects of their role in the 2015 Garissa University attack, Kenyans are asking whether their country's war against al-Shabab jihadists in Somalia is worth it.

The ruling is good news, says Denis Owino, a political analyst with the Nairobi-based think tank Kenya Insights.

"This is one of the biggest attacks that ever hit Kenya in our history of terrorism, that we've been trying to deal with in the recent past," he told RFI.

The attack on Garissa University was carried out by four gunmen linked to Somalia's al-Shabab group and left 148 people dead, mainly students.

On Wednesday, judges convicted Rashid Charles Mberesero, Mohamed Ali Abikar and Hassan Edin Hassan of conspiracy to commit the attack.

A fourth man, Sahal Diriye Hussein, was acquitted of the charges.

Despite judges taking more than four years to deliver their judgment, it is being perceived as a victory for the Kenyan police and prosecutors, who have constantly been accused of botching high-profile cases.

There was public uproar in January 2008 when a police officer, who shot dead a protester during post-election violence, was aquitted because of insufficient evidence. The gun presented in court bore a different serial number to the one he actually used.

End of impunity
Such flaws have been blamed for the reason why many terror suspects have been let off.

The most blatant example was in January this year, where the suspects involved in the 2013 assault on Westgate mall were acquitted. The following day, Shabab militants staged another attack, this time on a hotel complex, that left 67 people dead.

However, this impunity may be coming to an end, reckons Owino.

The conviction "will hold accountable the suspects and the people who were involved in this heinous act", he commented. "It was a judgment that so many people were expecting given the fact that so many terror suspects were never held accountable."

The three suspects still need to hear their sentencing on 3 July, but it does appear that they will be spending the rest of their lives behind bars.

Now that their fate is settled, where does that leave Kenya in its war on terror in Somalia?

In doubt, argues Owino.
'Biggest victim of al-Shabab'
"It is time for Kenya to move away from the war in Somalia," he says. "What do we stand to win from our forces staying there?"

Kenya has paid a heavy price in terms of lives lost since it joined the US-led 'war on terror' in 2011.

Nairobi first sent troops to Mogadishu following a spate of kidnappings in its coastal region to target Shabab fighters, whom it blamed for the abductions.

The Islamist terror group denied involvement but stepped up attacks elsewhere in the country, in retaliation for Kenya's presence in Somalia.

"Nobody is happy about losing a loved one," continues Owino, referring to opinion polls that suggest the public want their troops to be brought home.

"Kenya has become the biggest victim of al-Shabab. It's fighting in the AMISOM force but it's not the only one and yet it keeps getting attacked," he adds.

Al-Shabab chooses to target Kenya over Ethiopia and other eastern African states primarily for PR purposes.

Kenya has high international visibility and so any attack will automatically get maximum coverage, and this means maximum propaganda for the group, according to experts. 

Should Kenya walk away from Somalia?
Some experts argue that al-Shabab attacked Nairobi multiple times even before Kenyan troops entered in 2011, and that the government would be best advised in tightening its porous border with Somalia and stepping up its fight with al-Shabab.

Owino however insists that the job is done. "We've already pushed them back, and we've done everything we need to do."

Political analyst Tom Mboya begs to differ.
"Pulling Kenyan troops out of Somalia without a carefully thought out strategy doesn't address the problem of our vulnerability to al-Shabaab," he reckons.

"The situation needs both a holistic solution to stabilising Somalia, as well as securing the very porous border," he told RFI.

The question is can Kenyans be patient and can troops stick it out longer in the battle against Shabab militants?

For Mboya, "As long as corruption remains rife in Kenya, terrorist elements will easily be able to compromise officials and gain access to the country, to the detriment of all Kenyans," he said.

In short, Wednesday's conviction of the three suspects may be good news for Kenya's justice system but fails to solve the bigger question about Kenya's role in Somalia.

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