A year ago this month, gunmen affiliated with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab stormed the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The three-day standoff killed 67 people and wounded many more. The event riveted the world for days. Those who survived are still recovering.
Among the dead was the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor. He’d come to Nairobi that weekend to speak at Storymoja, a Pan-African literary festival. Hundreds of Kenyans and visitors from around the world had gathered at the National Museum downtown to discuss literature, memory, politics and country, and to meet luminaries like Awoonor. The poet had led a workshop, presented a talk about his forthcoming book and taken part in a press conference.
But Awoonor was at the Westgate Mall, enjoying the company of his son, Afetsi, when the first gunshots rang out. He died. The next day of Storymoja was canceled. In Accra, Ghana, later that week, hundreds gathered at the airport for the arrival of the poet’s body. He was 78 years old.
Another Ghanaian poet, Kwame Dawes, explained to me Awoonor’s significance to Ghanaian culture and African history.
Kenya’s counterterrorism approach following the Westgate Mall attack is crude — and may actually be spawning more violence.
NAIROBI, Kenya — At around 7:30 p.m. on March 31, three blasts went off in Nairobi’s Eastleigh neighborhood. The explosions, which police say were caused by grenades, killed six and injured around a dozen civilians congregating at two local cafes in the suburban area, which is dominated by ethnic Somalis.
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The bombings were only the latest in a spat of terror attacks following the September 2013 siege of Westgate Mall by Somali gunmen, which left 67 people dead. In December, a grenade blast killed four people in Eastleigh. In late March, unidentified gunmen entered a church near the coastal city of Mombasa, killing six. In all, nearly a dozen attacks that bear the marks of al-Shabab, a jihadist group based in Somalia that was responsible for the Westgate attack, have rattled Kenya since last fall.
Police are taking a high-profile approach as they respond to these attacks, detaining thousands of Somalis and Kenyan citizens of Somali heritage. But stops and arrests are not based on intelligence. Rather, police officers simply scour ethnic-Somali neighborhoods, sweeping up civilians from the streets.
Terrorism analysts say this sort of policing may actually be making Kenya less safe. As indiscriminate profiling becomes the fabric of security procedures, hundreds of thousands of Kenyan-Somali Muslims — a group from which al-Shabab affiliates are actively attempting torecruit — have something to be angry about. The government’s ethnic-focused, and often brutal, anti-terror tactics thus may be fueling the very attacks they are meant to suppress.
Read the full story at Foreign Policy Magazine.