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Terrorism becoming routine in Kenya

Victims of the most recent terrorists attacks in Mandera, Kenya, are received at Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi. Katie G Nelson photo

Nairobi, Kenya — It was still dark when suspected members of the militant group Al-Shabaab detonated explosives outside a compound in Mandera, a city in northeastern Kenya.

More than a hundred quarry workers were inside the compound sleeping when the attack took place last week, 14 of whom died from the barrage of militant gunfire; nearly a dozen more were injured while fleeing.

In less than two weeks, President Barack Obama will be visiting Kenya, his father’s country of origin, so you might think a terrorist attack here would be big news, or at least prompt official pronouncements of new measures aimed at beefing up security.

But the rising number of terrorist attacks in Kenya, which has almost doubled in the last two years, hasn’t necessarily prompted increased vigilance, more vigorous official declarations or an uptick in anger from residents; in fact it seems quite the opposite. It’s become routine.

“You kind of get angry the first time it happens, and then the second time you think ‘what more can we do?’” said Robert Mathenge, a 23-year-old entrepreneur in Nairobi. “It seems like it’s becoming normal, so you just get mad and get over it,” he said.

Mathenge isn’t alone. Many Kenyans express frustration about the government’s inability to curb violent extremism in the country, admitting their initial reaction over the nearly 500 deaths by terrorism in Kenya since 2011 has recently turned from anger to apathy.

By most measures, Tuesday’s terrorist attack on a group of quarry workers in Mandera, Kenya was nothing unusual.

In fact, residents in northeast Kenya have become familiar with Al-Shabaab’s violence in the region, which includes a December attack that killed of 36 quarry workers in Mandera and an ambush in Garissa in April, which left 148 people dead.

University students donate blood at Kenyatta National Hospital, Sunday, April 12, 2015, in Nairobi, Kenya.  AP

University students donate blood at Kenyatta National Hospital, Sunday, April 12, 2015, in Nairobi, Kenya. AP

The Kenyan government has promised to beef-up security around the region by increasing military presence in the northeast and monitoring the porous Kenya/Somalia border more closely.

But emerging details about last Tuesday’s attack in the area raises concerns about the government’s ability to adequately prevent — or even respond — to such events.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery last week publicly condemned the Al-Shabaab-led attack in Mandera, Kenya, stating the “heinous murderers” intended on “executing the 150 residents” inside the compound.

“However,” he added, “136 residents who were facing imminent danger of slaughter by the terrorists were safely evacuated,” thanks to the “the swift response by the police.”

Witnesses near the compound told a very different story about the attack, which occurred just meters from a Kenyan military base.

“It went on for more than an hour,” one victim of the attack told the BBC. “But the authorities did not show up until later that morning. We didn’t have guns to fight back; the government isn’t doing its job.”

Local Lawmaker Mohammed Elmi also criticized Kenya’s military response, telling reporters that the government “is in slumber land” and “doing nothing to protect Kenyans,” according to Kenya’s Daily Nation.

While news about the attack slowly trickled Tuesday afternoon, local news publications were mum. While several media outlets arrived at Kenyatta National Hospital that afternoon to catch a glimpse of a handful of victims who were flown into the capitol for treatment, most stations simply saved any broadcasts for the evening slot, which was more than 16 hours post- attack. Major international news outlets didn’t even show.

“I don’t watch the news,” a patient at Kenyatta National Hospital said, unaware that a convoy of ambulances carrying eight Mandera attack victims was weaving his way. “I only hear about something when it’s big.”

“Kenyans – especially Nairobians — are insanely blasé about terrorism,” remarked Rowan Emslie, a writer based in Nairobi. “That’s why Tuesday’s attack barely made the news.”

Emslie said the frequency of attacks does contribute to the somewhat blasé perspective in Nairobi, but that it’s also because of an over-arching mistrust of government security forces that leads residents toward detachment.

“These attacks have been happening for so long that no one has any faith in the government system,” Emslie said. “Kenyans have so little faith in public institutions.”

That sentiment has likely grown since late April, when Kenyans discovered it took seven hours for the military be deployed to Garissa, where 148 people were killed inside a college by Al-Shabaab. The second major revelation was even worse; authorities admitted they failed to act on warnings of an imminent attack in Garissa.

Security officials respond during the al Shabaab attack on Nairobi's Westgate Mall Sept. 21, 2013

Security officials respond during the al Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall Sept. 21, 2013

While some security measures have changed in Kenya – the most tangible being the installation of 1,800 surveillance cameras in Nairobi and Mombasa – some say such initiatives only enforce a false sense of security while failing to address the foundational distrust between residents and officials.

“The government says they have the issue handled but it happens all the time,” Mathenge said. “You feel like you’re getting lied to.”

Brad Vanderford moved to Kenya just two weeks before members of Al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people and injuring more than 175 others.

Vanderford said the government’s attempts to curb terrorism in Kenya haven’t made him feel safer. Instead, time has.

“I don’t feel safer because the government stepped up their security efforts, I don’t feel safer because the geopolitical environment has improved. I feel safer because I’m father away from any event that has been that close to me,” Vanderford said.

But when asked about his sense of safety in light of Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Mandera, Vanderford reacted in confusion. “Oh, really? I didn’t even hear about it,” he responded. “How come no one knows about this?”

Four days after the Mandera attack, Nairobi is buzzing with city servants patching roads, fixing bridges and pruning public land before the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama in two weeks. Many Nairobi-residents are looking forward to Obama’s visit; only a few have quietly questioned the likelihood of a terrorism attack during the trip. The majority have moved on from Tuesday.

Even Mathenge, who was angry about Tuesday’s attack in Mandera has refocused and cleared his mind.

“Today, I’m talking about it but tomorrow it’s out of my mind,” Mathenge said. “You stop caring because the government doesn’t care. If the government doesn’t care, then it doesn’t affect my life..


About Author

Katie G. Nelson is an American journalist and photographer covering global health, human rights and international aid issues in East Africa. Katie, a former development worker, is most interested in challenging preconceived notions of East Africa while shining a spotlight on people who are injecting innovation, creativity and some serious grit into their communities. She has a B.A. in Global Studies and a Master of Public Health from the University of Minnesota.