Related Notes

(This analysis was also published in The Conversation.)

The terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, has come to an end now with five more terrorists killed and eleven in custody. The attack raises a number of questions over security and stability in East Africa that need to be asked and answered. This region has suffered from a prolonged crisis primarily connected to the collapse of any semblance of order in Somalia more than two decades ago.

Despite numerous efforts of Western donors and regional powers, there is still no effective government in Somalia and al-Shabaab, the terrorist group behind the attack in Nairobi, has a strong foothold in the country. From this base, the group has now hit out at Kenya, a country that has intervened militarily in Somalia in support of an embattled, African Union and UN-backed government.

This is not the first time Kenya has been affected by the lack of effective governance in Somalia. Islamic extremists based in Somalia have carried out attacks against tourist resorts in Kenya for several years, as have pirates, another major source of threat emanating from Somalia, and “home-grown” separatists in Kenya itself.

So the problem in itself is not new: as Samuel Makinda puts it, Somalia’s anarchy is spreading. What does give cause for concern is the scale and audacity of this most recent attack by a well-known terrorist group that has clearly demonstrated its capacity for complex operations outside its traditional comfort zone.

But the problem is also deeper than Somalia. Kenya is far from a stable and well-governed country. It is still recovering from the violence after the 2007 disputed presidential elections, its current president and vice president have both been indicted in connection with atrocities committed then. Corruption is a systemic threat to good governance in Kenya. Local unrest, especially in the North Eastern Province of Kenya with its significant Somalian population, adds further to the cross-border challenges that are exacerbated by al-Shabaab’s retaliation against Kenya’s military intervention in 2011, forecast at the time already by the International Crisis Group.

Somalia is thus a pivotal state in what I referred to in earlier research as a state failure region. Unrest in Somalia has drawn in the country’s two powerful neighbours – Ethiopia and Kenya – and in turn contributed much to local instability there. While politically stable, the third neighbour – Djibouti – has been affected by a constant stream of refugees from Somalia and served as a transit hub for migration across the Red Sea.

While migration links East Africa with the Arab world in one direction, links in the opposite direction have connected al-Shabaab with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for some time as well, thus further increasing the destabilising potential that Somalia has, not least because of its critical geostrategic location.

Beyond geography, what makes this location so significant is that the region as a whole and on both sides of the Red Sea is beset by problems that are acutely tied to individual, local, regional and global security. Organised crime (piracy, illegal migration), international terrorism (al-Shabaab, AQAP), and civil wars (southern Yemen, the Ogaden region in Ethiopia, the North Eastern Province in Kenya, and Somalia as a whole) combine to create a deadly cocktail of challenges. States with weak capacity and political will are ill-equipped to tackle them at the best of times and the international community can only at best contain them.

What the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi thus illustrates is a longer-term trend of insecurity and instability in East Africa that is of a different scale, but not of a fundamentally new quality. Its causes are complex and long-standing, and they have been allowed to fester for long enough that they are now difficult to untangle and manage, let alone resolve. Somalia is clearly at the core of the many problems that the region faces, but it has also created a degree of instability beyond its own borders that requires a regional and cross-sectoral approach by the international community.

Hopefully, the sheer scale of the Nairobi attack serves as a wake-up call that triggers a renewed effort by Somalians, their neighbours, and their international partners to come together and finally address a decades-old crisis that has slowly but undeniably spun out of control.