The hostage situation this weekend in the Westgate shopping centre has hit global headlines in a way very few events in Sub-Saharan Africa ever do. At least 68 people have been killed and many more injured in an attack by militants on the shopping centre in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The siege, entering its third day, is the culmination of a series of attacks by the militant al-Qaeda linked group, al-Shabaab.
Al-Shabaab means ‘The Youth’ in Arabic. It emerged as a radical youth wing of Somalia’s now-defunct Union of Islamic Courts in 2006. At the time it was fighting Ethiopian forces who had entered Somalia to back a weak interim government in the country.
There are numerous reports of foreign jihadists going to Somalia to help al-Shabaab, especially from Yemen and Libya. The group has imposed a strict version of Sharia law in areas under its control, including stoning to death of women accused of adultery and amputating the hands of thieves. The Kenyan army has a strong presence in Somalia as a result of an African Union mandate to destroy the group.
The United States in particular has especially been worried about the growth of al-Shabaab, as well as similar groups such as Boko Haram. Back in April 2012, Daniel Benjamin, US Coordinator of the Office for Counterterrorism highlighted the issue:
“In Nigeria, long-standing grievances in the north led to the re-emergence of Boko Haram – and in Somalia, al-Shabaab, while weakened, continues to frustrate efforts to establish a legitimate government and to threaten countries in East Africa.”
Much of this instability can be traced back to the regime change that took place in Libya. The return of refugees and mercenaries to their countries of origin across the Sahel greatly increased the internal pressures faced by a vast swathe of sub-Saharan countries, and this has led to the growth of organisations such as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.
However, it should be put into context. According to the Pew Research Centre, The Muslim population in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to grow by nearly 60% in the next 20 years, from 242.5 million in 2010 to 385.9 million in 2030. In Kenya alone, the largely peaceful Muslim population stands at over two million. Projections show that it could grow to over five million by 2030.
It is important to highlight the fact that the vast majority of this Muslim population is peaceful. However, organisations like al-Shabaab feel threatened by other religions; The Pew Research centre highlights some of this fundamental unease:
“…the region’s non- Muslim population also is growing at a rapid pace, Muslims are expected to make up only a slightly larger share of the region’s population in 2030 (31.0%) than they do in 2010 (29.6%). ”
Of course, multiculturalism is not on the agenda for a group like al-Shabaab. However, nations such as Kenya, which is still coping with the aftermath of the 2007-2008 post-election violence are trying to come to terms with living together. In Kenya right now, there is a remarkable unity that wasn’t immediately on display six years ago.
Mobile phone donations to an appeal set up immediately after the attack are in excess of £330,000. Both Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto (who has been given leave to fly back from The Hague temporarily) have united with opposition leaders like Raila Odinga in their condemnation of the attack. It seems that the unity of a nation that has been through major upheavals over the past few years may be one of the few good things that can come out of this terrorist incident.
Al-Shabaab meanwhile has displayed that it can, and will continue with terrorist attacks, Whilst the Muslim population of Sub-Saharan Africa is largely peaceful, it is groups such as this that have given it a bad name.