Good governance: an antidote to terror?

Published: 24 Sep 2013
By: Lucy Hovil

Kenya has paid an excruciatingly heavy price for its regional position in the struggle against Islamic militants. The horror of what has just taken place in Nairobi’s exclusive Westgate shopping mall is both hard to comprehend and dreadfully predictable. It is hard to comprehend for lots of reasons, not least the cruelty of what has taken place. And it is dreadfully predictable because at the end of the day, if someone wants to go into a shopping mall and create carnage it is not that hard to do – especially in situations where inadequate money has been spent on security.

As the attack comes to a gruesome end, the crucial question now is what next? How do those who have lost friends and family come to terms with this brutal attack? What are the implications for Kenya, for the region, for the world? And specifically, what are the implications for Somalis and those of Somali origin living in Kenya?

It seems that two possible narratives can come out of what has happened. The first is one in which an exclusive and nationalistic Kenyan identity is (re)created. In this narrative, the events that have taken place consisted of Somali Islamic terrorists killing Kenyans and those who were their guests. Under this narrative, it would be all too easy for Kenya to fall back on xenophobic rhetoric and an exclusive interpretation of Kenyan identity. The fall out for this could involve an attack on the rights of refugees: in the past, Kenya has used threats to security as a justification for border closures, measures to force refugees into camps and other restrictions on free movement. This course of action would unravel the huge advances in the acceptance of refugees living in Nairobi and other urban areas in the country. It would be an utter tragedy, not least in the aftermath of last month’s ruling by Kenya’s High Court, which affirmed the right to freedom of movement and the prima facie right of refugees to live in urban areas, thus putting the right to dignity for refugees back at the heart of refugee protection. (Read previous blog here)

The alternative narrative is one in which recognition is made of the fact that what took place is not just about Somalia or Kenya, but is actually the result of a minority terrorist group that no more represents Somalis than it does Muslims. And the facts that are now emerging seem to support this narrative: it has been reported that citizens of perhaps up to nine countries may have been represented in the group of terrorists who carried out the attack including the UK and USA. And the group deliberately chose a location that was known to be popular with Kenya’s considerable expatriate community. If this second narrative is to dominate in the days and weeks to come, it is vital that recognition is made of the fact that this heinous attack is not about nationalities or about religion. Instead, it presents a frightening vision of a transnational identity that has formed around a warped version of Islam, instrumentalised by those who crave power.

All the indications so far are that Kenyans recognise this and are adopting the second of these narratives – that they are being united in their grief. Journalists talk of the unprecedented experience of people bring food to them while they waited for events to unfold outside the mall. We have all heard the stories of people volunteering to give blood.

But ultimately the real response will depend on the Kenyan government and whether or not it is prepared to show good leadership and rise to the challenge – the challenge to create an alternative to the forms of marginalisation and exclusion on which terror breeds. So far, the signs are good: the messages being given off by both President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto emphasise calls for unity and the need for calm. The latter referred to “the indomitable Kenyan spirit” which has “[overcome] mindless anarchy with sanity and composure.” (See full speech here)

Time will tell which narrative will win. Already Somalis in Nairobi are reportedly saying they fear for their lives and it is clear that for Kenya to move forward it will take a lot more than words. At the end of the day, the antidote to terror and criminality is not in battening down the hatches, but in the opposite. At a local level, it is vital that inclusive narratives are promoted and that the scapegoating of ‘strangers’ is avoided; at a national level there is a need for the type of governance that allows people to be secure in their legitimacy to belong to a state that is there for their good, not for personal gain; and internationally, just as the rallying cries that seeded this terror came from outside the state, so too the solution will also need to be global in its response and reach.

Regions: North and Horn of Africa, Other
Type: IRRI Blog