Al-Shabaab and friends; we’re facing a very different enemy

Wednesday January 15 2020

The Daily Nation this week reported that Kenya’s North “is on the cusp of yet another education crisis as teachers begin fleeing amid fears of increasing Al-Shabaab attacks”.


The Somalia-based militants have stepped up attacks in Kenyan counties across the border since last month, with more than 10 in the northern and coastal regions that killed at least 25 people.

The paper recalled a 2018 mass exodus that saw hundreds of teachers flee Wajir County after an attack on Qarsa Primary School killed three people, including two teachers. A group of teachers from Garissa and Mandera were transferred and some 250 schools forced to close for lack of teachers, it reported.

But this war against teachers, education and its symbols isn’t unique to Al-Shabaab. It has been a feature of the new generation of African militant groups to attack the institutions that provide a counter to their atavistic ideologies or who see education as the tool of their marginalisation — as in the early stages of the Sierra Leone Civil War of 1991-2002.



The most widely reported recent attack on education has to be the April 2014 kidnap of 276 female students from a secondary school in Chibok Town, Borno State, Nigeria, by Boko Haram that produced the #BringBackOurGirls global campaign.

However, the extremist movement was playing by an old script, first deployed by the bizarre and brutal Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda.

In March 1989, the LRA raided St Mary’s College, a girls school, abducting 10 schoolgirls and 33 seminarians and villagers. But this was a dry run for the big one that was to shock and dominate international headlines for months.

In October 1996, they swooped on St Mary’s College boarding school in Aboke, kidnapping 139 schoolgirls (Boko Haram almost doubled the number 18 years later).

The deputy headmistress, Italian nun Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the rebels and successfully negotiated the release of 109 of the girls.


In between, the civil war in Sierra Leone broke out in 1991 and the heinous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels were about to dramatically highlight the factor of education in African political grievance. Their first target was the university, and soon after they started handing out “short-” and “long sleeve” treatments to their victims.

For the “short sleeve” they would cut the arms off at the elbow, and for the “long sleeve” at the wrist. The RUF were “hinterland” people who had rebelled against over 100 years of exploitation and marginalisation by a coastal Creole elite. To them, education, which they had had little of, represented the leading tool used to keep them poor and excluded. 

Thus, they attacked schools and cut off the arms of educated people to equalise things — to see what much their education could do for them if they were limbless.

What runs through LRA, RUF, Boko Haram and now Shabaab is this understanding that education is a powerful force and can be weaponised in various ways.


Shabaab, like the LRA, probably sees that the lack of it makes, in the long-term, for an illiterate pool of a youthful population to recruit as loyal unquestioning soldiers, who accept the narrow universe presented to them easily because they can’t imagine better as they have not been “corrupted” by visions of a greater world out there.

An illiterate child soldier is certainly not thinking of coding and building, to borrow the cliché, “an African Facebook”. And, at a wider level, uneducated ones will not be socially mobile or partake of the modern groceries in the economy, thereby remaining poor — and angry. And that serves the militants well as the disgruntled constituency would always support them in their war against the State.

It’s an evil and diabolical but clever, long-term game.

This was not always how militant groups in Africa waged war; so, what changed?


Mirroring the process we have seen with political parties, rebel groups have become balkanised and are more sectarian (based either on ethnicity or religion) and/or regional and are not the classic national movements of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s that sought to take over and rule the whole nation.

Some of this has resulted from the collapse or near-collapse of many African states from military rule, bungled socialist and Marxist experiments and the commodity crises of the 1970s and ’80s. The rest resulted from good reasons — economic and political reforms that diminished the reach and effectiveness of post-Cold War African governments, leaving all sorts of forces to contend for supremacy in the periphery.


Shabaab and its Sahel cousins are new and different, playing regional and sectarian politics at a transnational level. We have, like in the movies, a worthy adversary.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site @cobbo3​