The Public Reacts to Terror in Kenya

Story by Colleen Luibrand | luibrand.c@husky.neu.edu

It appeared to be an ordinary morning at Garissa University in northeast Kenya on April 2, 2015. Several students were gathered at the on-campus mosque for their morning prayer rituals, and many others were sleeping or studying for exams. Things turned deadly shortly after 5 a.m., when gunshots echoed throughout campus. Just after dawn, gunmen raided the dormitories where students resided and opened fire, killing 147 people, most of them students. Not long after the terror siege ended, the al-Shabaab militant group, a Somali-based branch of Al Qaeda, took responsibility for the attack.

Four militants, armed with assault weapons and suicide vests, shot and killed two security officers protecting the university to gain entry on that fateful Thursday morning. The ease of entrance for the terrorists raised immediate security concerns on why a university, just 90 miles from the unstable Somali border, was not more secure, and why the students were not protected from this horrendous act of terror. The terror group made a specific threat shortly before the attack targeting Kenyan schools, suggesting a serious lack of response in strengthening security measures.

The al-Shabab militants took several students hostage, with some estimating upwards of 300  being held in the students’ living complexes. The assassins specifically targeted students of Christian faith. Militants knocked through barriers to reach hidden students and asked them if they were Christian or Muslim. The Christian students were then shot and killed on the spot, but the Muslim students were left unharmed.

The assault went on for 13 hours until Kenyan security forces finally confirmed the crisis had ended. Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, demanded the accelerated training of 10,000 new police recruits in an effort to increase security and prevent further attacks.

Unfortunately, President Kenyatta was far too late. Kenya was now mourning the lives of 147 young, bright individuals who were assassinated while trying to receive educations to better themselves, their families, and their country.

For the people of Kenya, April 2, 2015, went down in history as the country’s deadliest terror attack since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy, which claimed the lives of over two hundred people. But for much of the rest of the world,  it was just another ordinary day.  Although international news media outlets vastly covered the attack, there was a lack of public outcry that was evident in the wake of the Paris attacks when ISIS launched a series of systemized attacks at multiple venues, including the Bataclan Theater, killing a total of 130 people in November 2015. Unlike Paris, there was no Facebook profile picture filter, limited Instagram posts, and a general disinterest when compared to what was seen after Paris.

Why was the response to the terrorist attacks in Paris so distinctive from the response to Kenya? And why is there a general sense of undervaluing tragedies such as those Garissa faced? In comparison, Kenya and France are relatively the same size in square mileage. However, the demographics of both countries are vastly different. According to the website If It Were My Home, which compares and contrasts countries, someone living in Kenya is 5.5 times more likely to be murdered than someone living in France. Compared to French citizens, Kenyans are also 15.2 times more likely to have HIV/AIDS and make 20 times less money on average. While people in Kenya have a life expectancy of 60, people in France are expected to live to an average of 81 years old.

After the Paris attacks, news coverage extended for weeks, portraying the names and faces of the victims and countless stories from witnesses, as well as extensive analyses of the massacre that kept many glued to the story for weeks. There was no such response in Garissa.

Instead, Kenyans generated their own hashtags in an attempt to disrupt the indifferent reaction from much of the world. The hashtags #147notjustanumber and #TheyHaveNames humanized and honored the victims, sharing photos, ages, names, and details of the lives lost.

Ory Okolloh Mwangi, the Kenyan responsible for starting the Twitter campaign tweeted:

“@Kenyanpundit: We will name them.  One by one. They are these “young Africans” we speak of all the time.  Chasing dreams. #147notjustanumber

The lack of public attentiveness is not unique to this specific attack at Garissa University; there is a common absence of uproar from “westernized” societies following similar disastrous situations in Africa. Most comparably, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria following the kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls by a Boko Haram militant group. Although prominent figures and celebrities such as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton sent tweets and posted hashtags, relatively no political intervention was actually taken, proving an apparent disconnect between conversation and political action. Eventually the tweets, hashtags, and conversation died down. Now, 22 months later, there are countless unanswered questions about what happened to these Nigerian girls and little progress towards their recovery.  

The lives of Garissa students, or the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria, should be valued no less than the victims of the horrific attacks at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris. After all, a human life is a human life and a united front is essential in hindering the potential of terrorist groups. As Martin Luther King, Jr. so wisely stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly.”

As Americans, we are no strangers to evil acts of terror. It is our civic duty to stand with the people of France, but additionally with the people of Kenya and other African countries in support of fostering a brighter and safer future for all. As President Barack Obama promised last April, “This much is clear: the future of Kenya will not be defined by violence and terror; it will be shaped by young people like those at Garissa University College – by their talents, their hopes, and their achievements.”
Garissa University reopened on January 4, demonstrating the pure resiliency and strength of the Kenyan community and their country. Nine months after the gruesome massacre of the young men and women, the people of Kenya proved that evil would not win, and that the names of the victims would not be forgotten.