How East Africa lost its innocence

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How East Africa lost its innocence

A decade ago the public could walk in and walk out of any shopping mall, restaurant, and building in the main cities of Kenya and Uganda without any hindrance. Not so any more. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi.

There are some dates that are now painfully etched into the subconscious of East Africans. One of them is 11 July 2010. As the FIFA World Cup final was approaching its zenith, a bomb exploded at the clubhouse of the Kyadongo rugby club in Kampala, Uganda. Seventy-four people died and more than 60 others were injured. Al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack. It was Uganda’s first solemn experience of imported terrorism. 

Three years after the Kyadongo attack, on 21 September 2013 to be precise, al-Shabaab struck again. They entered Kenya’s high-end Westgate shopping mall, a model symbol of opulence on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, a place frequented by the high and mighty and diplomats and UN staff domiciled in Nairobi, and started a killing spree.

A combined contingent of specialised units drawn from the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) and the police responded and engaged the terrorists in a firefight. When the military boots left the scene, 67 people from different nationalities had been killed, while hundreds of others were injured. 

Kyadongo and Westgate have now passed into Somali-Kenya-Uganda folklore. Both attacks are acknowledged as al-Shabaab’s retribution for the Ugandan and Kenyan armies’ presence in Somalia. Since 2007 Uganda has taken the lead role in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), while Kenya launched “Operation Linda Nchi” (Operation Defend the Nation) into Somalia in October 2011, after a series of terrorist incidents in Kenya were blamed on al-Shabaab. In 2012, the Kenyan troops engaged in “Operation Linda Nchi” were re-hatted and made part of AMISOM.

The current spate of attacks, mostly attributed to al-Qaeda’s east African affiliate, al-Shabaab, have led to a trend that threatens more than a dozen African, Middle East and far East nations 

Despite the attacks in Kyadongo and Westgate, both the Ugandan and Kenyan armies still remain in Somalia, though the two attacks completely redefined al-Shabaab, revealing its capabilities for operating through sleepers and tightly-controlled cells outside of Somalia. The attacks also exposed East Africa’s vulnerabilities and demanded a rethink of the region’s security apparatus. 

The records show that Kenya and Tanzania first witnessed the horrors of imported terrorism in August 1998 when the US embassies in their major cities – Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam – were attacked by simultaneous truck bombings. 

Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a Comorian national who had a Kenyan passport, was said to have been the mastermind of the attacks. Mohammed was alleged to have been Osama Bin Laden’s confidant in East Africa. In all, 213 people were killed in the Nairobi attack, and 11 in Dar es Salaam. Mohammed was reportedly killed in Somalia in 2011. But the current spate of attacks, mostly attributed to al-Qaeda’s East African affiliate, al-Shabaab, have led to a highly emotive and disturbing trend that threatens more than a dozen African, Middle East and Far East nations. 

Al-Shabaab, which means “The Youth”, was formed by remnants of the former Islamic Courts Union (ICU) of Somalia which seized power after a US-backed and sponsored Transitional Federal Government (TFG) failed to win public approval. In late 2006, however, the ICU announced its intention to make Somalia an Islamic emirate. This did not go down well with its neighbours, especially Kenya and Ethiopia, who have always viewed Somalia with suspicion. 

Soon unconfirmed reports hinted that the ICU was giving shelter to al-Qaeda suspects, and this too did not please the neighbouring countries or the US. An elaborate plan was, therefore, put in place by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which led to an incursion into Somalia coordinated by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF).

The US was not going to soil its fingers in Somali, again as it did in 1993, which led to its humiliating defeat in October of that year, when it lost 18 soldiers while trying to capture General Mohamed Farah Aideed. The movie Black Hawk Down is a good rendition of that American defeat in Mogadishu. Since then the US has limited itself to proxy wars in Somalia and elsewhere, and this is how Washington ended up supporting the ENDF’s incursion into Somalia with the aim of routing the ICU and freeing Mogadishu of its tentacles.

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