Following the murder of nearly 150 students in the Kenyan city of Garissa by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, local leaders sought to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Kenya's large Somali refugee population.
The attacks of Al-Shabaab have been portrayed as a fight between Christians and Muslims, between Kenyans and Somalis. Though perhaps politically convenient, characterising Al-Shabaab as a Somali problem that can be solved through actions that target the Somali population ignores the evidence and risks further bloodshed.
In a survey published by the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, 95 individuals connected with Al-Shabab and 46 relatives of people who had joined Al-Shabab were interviewed. All of them were Kenyans.
These interviews highlight the Kenyan government's refusal to acknowledge the rise of homegrown terrorism and the active enlistment of non-Somali Kenyans into Al-Shabaab. In fact, as the government pointed the finger toward the refugee camps and the Somalis living within them, it was revealed that one of the gunmen implicated in the university attack was a young Kenyan born to a government official and educated at the University of Nairobi. Many of Al-Shabaab's recruits are not even Muslims, but Kenyan Christians living in slums, offered money, training, and conversion to Islam. Those interviewed said they felt disenfranchised by widespread government corruption, poor living conditions, and a feeling that there is no better alternative. It does not absolve Al-Shabaab's recruits of the terrible crimes seen in Garissa and the Westgate mall -- among others -- to recognize that the lack of political will to end the conflict in Somalia, support diplomacy, and negotiate peace has fostered the chaos in which so many young Somali and Kenyan men find themselves. Al-Shabaab is not a Somali movement, but a movement that has festered and grown in a state that has been left to fail and flail. Despite their best efforts, Somalis have not had enough support to eradicate such groups. They have been left helpless in the face of Al-Shabaab's growth, an unwitting host for more chaos they do not wish to see spread. To his credit, the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta acknowledged the internal problems in a speech he made following the murders in Garissa. "Our task of countering terrorism has been made all the more difficult by the fact that the planners and financiers of this brutality are deeply embedded in our communities," he said. His actions, however, have led to Kenya's air force leading bombing raids on Somalia and the closure of Somali money transfer firms.
These moves continue to target the Somali population and punish Somalia disproportionately and devastatingly pushing it further into strife. Many Somalis within Kenya rely on money transfers to pay for basics such as school fees. Even the governor of Kenya's central bank expressed concern that it would be the more than one million Somalis living in Kenya who would feel the brunt of the consequences, rather than terrorists. Kenyatta's refusal to discriminate between terrorists and Somalis is an attitude now widespread. Just recently, I heard a well-known American anchor pose the question, "Why do Somalis hate Kenya?" It is this type of ignorance and arrogance that breeds hatred. It is the attacks -- physical and verbal -- on the character and dignity of Somalis, the continued killing and harassment and disregard of more and more people that breeds hatred. It is the displacement of Somalis -- women, children, and men who have known only these refugee camps as their home -- that breeds hatred. The neglect that Somalis have experienced in the last two decades has been vast, and it continues at the hands of leaders -- in Somalia and outside of it -- who have failed to show they are serious about peace, that they want to invest in the Somali people and work with them to create a better future. For years, Kenya has waged a character assassination on Somalia in an effort to produce for itself gains from Somalia's people, territories, and industries. Somali wealth is welcomed by one hand as the other hand points the finger of blame at Somalis for the ills of Kenya. The international community has also failed to stand by its purported commitment to peace. Rather than initiate peace, it only reacts when crisis and disaster are made evident.
The plight of Somalis abroad is only worsened by the weakness and corruption of Somalia's government as home. The politicians of today have failed their people. The president has yet to defend his people against the actions of Kenya, and he has not sought partnership from the international community in ensuring that the refugees are left to worse fates than the ones they were already enduring. No one has asked the question of what will happen to these children, generations who have known no other home than the refugee camp in which they are no longer welcome. No one has bothered to figure out where they will go next. No one has demonstrated that these lives matter, one way or another.
What we need now is to stop pointing fingers and to find out how to end this nightmare for the Somali people and the heartbreak of all of us who watch their senseless plight at the hands of those tasked with knowing better. The people of Somalia deserve at least that much.