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Garissa university attack is not about religion

Friday April 3 2015

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I had already written an article about this week’s accusation of some important political personalities, and how society was frying them with bitter herbs akin to a Passover sacrificial lamb. However, yesterday’s massacre at Garissa calls for a new piece.

We need to reflect on what has happened; go deeper into it and seek solutions together.

I had not made up my mind to change the article I had already written, until late into the night, when I got an email from Anne Thompson, a journalist working with NBC News.

Ms Thompson’s questions reflect what most of the Western world may have been wondering yesterday. She said: “We are working on a story about today’s attack at Garissa University and are trying to understand what appears to be the religious roots of this incident. Is this truly a question of religion or is it being used as a cover for economic or political issues? Are Christians safe in Kenya?”

Several books would have to be written to give a comprehensive answer to each of these questions. The roots of extremism, the causes of youth radicalisation and terrorism are intertwined with organised crime, transnational crime and corruption.

Africa has increasingly become a soft, constant target of terror strikes. These attacks, which have had devastating effects including loss of lives, destruction of property and social trauma, have increased exponentially in Kenya since the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) captured Kismayo in September 2012.

Police reports say that 320 people have been killed and 785 injured in terror attacks since then.

It is even more traumatising to notice that ever since KDF captured Kismayo, the targets of terror have shifted from foreign to local, from the US Embassy or Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel to a Nairobi upmarket shopping mall, a market, matatus and now a public university deep inside eastern Kenya.

Terrorism has spread rapidly and widely, thanks to the aid of corrupt structures that allowed the penetration of organised crime. There seems to be a disturbing union between terrorism and organised crimes such as corruption, money-laundering and environmental and wildlife crimes, which are all rampant in the region. This conglomeration of ills makes it difficult for government agencies to respond swiftly and efficiently.


Financial structures are also especially vulnerable to the threat of terrorism. On one hand, the economy could be paralysed by insecurity, and on the other, terrorists could make use of loopholes in the financial system to fund their extremist behaviour.

This tension is progressively damaging the social fabric, where we see a sort of renewal of religious, racial and ethnic tensions stemming mainly from religious fundamentalism. Equally, there are genuine concerns that terrorism may overhaul the fundamentals of order and stability in Africa.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that terrorism is not only a persisting security and economic challenge, but also a confounding multi-dimensional dilemma.

While the devastating effects of terror are clear to all, and there is consensus that the problem calls for prompt and efficient responses, actors are mostly divided on which direction such interventions ought to take.

Emergency situations such as yesterday’s Garissa attack may lead to rushed decisions, such as unjustified changes in law and the discrimination against, or repression of, citizens based on religious or ethnic grounds.


We should not forget that human rights are an essential tool in the fight against terrorism. A country that tampers with human rights in the name of fighting terrorism has already joined them; it has become a terrorist nation. The Supreme Court of India rightly observed:

“Terrorism often thrives where human rights are violated, which adds to the need to strengthen action to combat violations of human rights...The lack of hope for justice provides (a) breeding ground for terrorism. Terrorism itself should also be understood as an assault on basic rights. In all cases, the fight against terrorism must be respectful to the human rights.”


In the whole world, states are taking radical measures in the hope of attaining a level of efficiency that can minimise and eventually disarm the threat of terror. Could this be a solution, or, on the contrary, the very cause of the spread of terrorism?

We urgently need to strengthen and secure the north. However, the border between Somalia and Kenya is porous and can be crossed at any point, every few metres. We also need to continue fighting the cancer of corruption at all levels.

Timewise, response to the Garissa siege was a remarkable improvement on the 2013 Westgate attack. The security forces may now need to rethink seriously the possibility of withdrawing from Kismayo. There seems to be a correlation between the increase of terrorism in Kenya, including the shift from foreign to Kenyan targets, and the capture of Kismayo.


While all these practical measures are urgent, it is also of essence to analyse in depth the roots of extremism and radicalisation. In my humble opinion, the matter is not religious.

I would tell Anne Thompson a thousand times that the matter is not religious. The terrorists may say so and they are lying. If the matter were religious they would have been attacking us since independence, but they didn’t.

Religion is just the terrorists’ excuse to justify before God and men their atrocious crimes and massacres. 

I can confidently say that some of my very best friends and most impressive colleagues and students are pious and dedicated Muslims. In them I have always seen a wonderful example of virtue, humanity, sincerity and dedication, which I wish many of us Christians could imitate.

Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected], Twitter: @lgfranceschi