The Garissa massacre, Al-Shabaab and US imperialism
by Shaun Arendse
On 2 April, the Somali based al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab carried out a horrific massacre of 148 university students in Garissa, Kenya. The 15 hours of carnage saw Muslim students separated from Christian, with the latter lined-up and executed. Later, parents trying to identify their murdered children found it almost impossible to recognise them due to the facial disfigurements caused by close-range head-shots.
Al-Shabaab is a barbaric reactionary organisation. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the global terrorist network Al-Qaeda, and now the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East, al-Shabaab is a creation of US imperialism. To defeat its rivals and cut across the development of mass working class struggle, US imperialism has leant on the most reactionary forces the world over for decades. It has nurtured and encouraged monsters that have now broken loose, not only terrorising the working class and poor but threatening the strategic interests of US imperialism itself.
Al-Shabaab dresses-up its right-wing anti-working class and anti-poor class agenda in a deformed perversion of the Islamic religion. The ‘caliphate internationalism’ of al-Shabaab has nothing in common with the socialist internationalism of the working class. Socialist internationalism looks forward to a future of high living standards for all, workers’ democracy, peace and freedom; the al-Shabaab looks backwards to the stifling feudal empires of centuries ago based on economic underdevelopment, poverty, ignorance and the absence of even basic democratic rights. Instead of peace and working class cooperation across borders, al-Shabaab’s vision is of a perpetual religious ‘clash of civilizations’.
The opposition of al-Shabaab to the West and the US in particular, has nothing in common with the relatively progressive anti-imperialist and anti-colonial national liberation struggles of the past. These were based on the mass mobilization of the working class, the poor and the peasantry; al-Shabaab has stepped into a vacuum created after decades of conflict has weakened, disorganised and atomized the working class. They lean upon the most reactionary pre-capitalist forms of clan and religion.
Al-Shabaab’s opposition to the imperialist policies of the US capitalist class is based on their own anti-democratic and anti-working class interests. To the extent that US imperialism supports corrupt capitalist regimes, warlords and other hired thugs, it prevents al-Shabaab from suppressing and dominating the masses of the region under their own religious dictatorship. Socialists do not support either imperialism or the reactionary forces of al-Shabaab.
Growing regional destabilization
The Garissa attack is the most extreme in a steady escalation of attacks in East Africa. In 2010 in Kampala, Uganda, 76 people were blown-up by al-Shabaab whilst watching the World Cup. In September 2013, 67 were murdered in the Westgate shopping centre massacre in Nairobi, Kenya. Between 2013 and now, over 400 Kenyans have been murdered by al-Shabaab in a series of smaller-scale terrorist attacks.
Nor is Garissa the first time that al-Shabaab has tried to sow religious divisions. In 2007 their supporters blew-up a Christian church in Ethiopia; in the Westgate attack non-Muslims were picked-out for murder as they were in Garissa. But in Somalia itself, al-Shabaab persecutes Muslims who do not subscribe to their own brutal interpretation of Islam.
The Garissa massacre also revives memories of the April 2014 abduction of 276 school girls in Nigeria by the Islamist group Boko Haram, al-Shabaab’s ideological twin. A clear pattern has emerged, not just of targeting innocent civilians who adhere to the ‘wrong’ religion or the ‘wrong’ lifestyles, but preying on our children to instil absolute terror.
Roots of atrocity in social conditions
Al-Shabaab emerged in Somalia in the 2000s. Only later did it begin to spread its reactionary ideology of ‘global jihad’ and its counter-revolutionary methods of indiscriminate terror into neighbouring countries. Imperialist divide and rule polices and the intrigues of local elites going back over decades, severe economic under-development and near un-ending conflict across the region gave birth to al-Shabaab. Like Boko Haram in Nigeria, they personify the negative side of the choice facing Africa between socialism and barbarism.
The legacy of colonial borders in the Horn of Africa is an important factor in the conflicts between the elites of the region. When the European colonial powers withdrew from the region they supported the imposition of borders that saw the Somali-ethnic group divided between Somalia, North East Kenya and the Southern Ethiopian region of Ogaden. In the 1950s, the world powers forced the ‘federation’ of Ethiopia and Eritrea setting the scene for brutal conflicts over decades as the Eritreans were brutally repressed by the elite in Addis Ababa. Somalia itself was cobbled together out of the colonies of British Somaliland and the Italian colony Somalia Italiana. Somaliland was brutally repressed by the US backed Mogadishu regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Somaliland has since declared independence but is yet to be recognised by any other states.
The Horn of Africa is a strategic area for world imperialism. It is close to the oil producing countries of the Middle East and it is estimated that 30% of world oil passes through the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coastline. Since 2001, the US has maintained the vast Camp Lemonnier military base in Djibouti (bordering Somalia). Since 2008, Camp Lemonnier has been under the US’s new African Command (AFRICOM) which was established to coordinate US imperialist intervention on the continent as Africa’s strategic importance increased. Increasingly, the US is also promoting the role of the African Union (AU) as its local military proxy after the United Nations (UN) has become deservedly discredited on the continent as a proxy for imperialism. The US and the European Union funds around two thirds of the AU’s budget.
Cold War rivalry & US Imperialism’s devastation of Somalia
From the 1970s the Horn of Africa became a battlefield in the Cold War between the USSR and US imperialism. These rival world powers manoeuvred between the repressive regimes of Ethiopia and Somalia to advance their own strategic interests in the region. For its part, US imperialism militarily propped-up the Somali dictatorship of Siad Barre throughout the 1980s. They supported his regime, not only in conflicts against the USSR-backed Ethiopian regime, but in the brutal civil war he waged against his own people.
Despite US support, the hated Barre regime collapsed by 1991 paving the way for the rule of the Somali warlords. With the collapse of the USSR in the same year marking the end of the Cold War, US imperialism’s main reason for involvement in the region also disappeared. They withdrew in early 1994. US imperialism’s Somali legacy was an economically devastated and severely underdeveloped country divided between rival warlords. These were the fertile social-conditions for the rise of al-Shabaab.
The rise of al-Shabaab in Somalia
The ‘rule’ of the warlords was brutal and arbitrary for ordinary Somalis. Their gangster methods hollowed out even the narrow base of support amongst their own (rarely) paid militias and by the 2000s they were in decline. In Mogadishu, local clan-based ‘Islamic’ Courts emerged around religious elites to try and bring some security and stability to daily life.
The Courts were encouraged and supported by the Somali business elite who were returning from self-imposed exile in number from the late 1990s to profiteer from the lucrative contracts available from different NGO food and aid programmes.
Initially the business elite organised their own militias. The local Coca-Cola franchise had 200 men under arms and the telecommunications company over 1,000. The worst profiteer, controlling large NGO contracts related to food transport and distribution, Aboukor Umar Adane, had over 2,000 men under arms. It goes without saying, that not only were these militias tasked with protecting the private business interests of the elite from bandits and warlords, but they could easily be used against the factory workers, engineers, truck drivers and port workers to stop attempts at working class organisation.
This alliance of religious and business elites was able to take effective control of Mogadishu by 2006 when the different locally-based Courts united as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Al-Shabaab emerged as the ICU’s militia. The Courts had a degree of popular support. Compared to the criminality of the warlords, life was more secure and stable under the ICU. Crime virtually disappeared in Mogadishu and whilst the ICU imposed their own taxation on the local population it was not on the same suffocating scale of the random extortion practised by the warlords.
US imperialism returns to the region
After Al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on America, US imperialism renewed its interest in the region which was an early theatre of operations for Al-Qaeda. In 1998, Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam killing 224; in 2002 suicide bombers attacked a hotel in Mombasa, killing 13 mostly Kenyan hotel workers, whilst trying to target Israeli guests. Between 2002 and 2006 the US waged a so-called ‘Shadow War’ of airstrikes to destroy Al-Qaeda in East Africa with the defeated Al-Qaeda remnants swelling the ranks of al-Shabaab.
Parallel to the ‘Shadow War’, US imperialism increased its efforts to install a pro-capitalist pro-Western regime in Mogadishu, sponsoring the creation of a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Nairobi. The TFG rested on clan divisions as well as the discredited warlords. In December 2006 Ethiopia invaded Somalia with the support of US airstrikes to install the TFG and drive the ICU and al-Shabaab out of Mogadishu. For the next two years civil war raged with the TFG in Mogadishu under the protection of the Ethiopian military and US imperialism. But by mid-2009 al-Shabaab had successfully fought back and controlled territory the size of Denmark with a population of over 5 million. The war-weary Ethiopian army withdrew.
Kenyan elite playing more assertive regional role
In October 2011, as fighting continued, the Kenyan government took the fateful decision to invade Somalia. Their pretext was to prevent kidnappings. The AU, with the support of US imperialism, has since ‘legitimised’ the Kenyan invasion and occupation, which continues to this day, under the name of the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). For two decades the Kenyan ruling class has not directly involved themselves in the conflicts on their Northern and Eastern borders. However, the Kenyan elite have had their confidence boosted by economic growth and Kenya’s achievement of the imperialist World Bank’s coveted ‘middle income status’. With confidence comes assertiveness.
The Kenyan elite has calculated that carving out a new buffer ‘state’ on their Eastern border, from the Somali state of Jubaland would serve their security interests. With the tacit backing of US imperialism they feel strong enough to test the water. There are countless reports of occupying Kenyan forces backing various anti-Mogadishu clans amongst whom they promote the idea of independence or at least ‘autonomy’ from Mogadishu. Any Somali elites willing to go along with such a plan would be guaranteed the largesse of the Kenyan capitalist class in return for their services. Such a policy can only aggravate the conflict within Somalia and the suffering of the Somali people.
As Westgate, Garissa and the dozens of other attacks in recent years have demonstrated, there are deadly consequences to the Kenyan people for the support given to US imperialism by the pro-capitalist regimes of Kibaki, Odinga and now Kenyatta. The continuing occupation of Jubaland by the Kenyan army is al-Shabaab’s pretext for the brutal atrocities they have committed, and will commit in the future, against the Kenyan people.
The working class is suffering economically too through job losses and pay cuts in the tourism industry, a major employer, as a result of the Kenyan elite’s foreign policy. Already this year, 23 hotels have closed and the Heritage group of hotels has imposed a 20-30% pay cut for its staff. However, there are no signs that the Kenyatta regime is prepared to withdraw from Somalia. Indeed, the Kenyan air force has already launched airstrikes in retaliation for the Garissa massacre.
The capitalist Kenyatta regime
Uhuru Kenyatta, president of Kenya, belongs to one of the richest families in Africa with assets valued at over $500 million. His interest in power is to further enrich himself, his family and his political cronies. He cares nothing for the working class and poor. Since al-Shabaab began terrorist attacks in Kenya, Kenyatta has overseen a crackdown on Kenyan ethnic-Somalis as well as on Muslims in general. Arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment based on religion and ethnicity are now commonplace.
Kenyatta already has a brutal record of stoking ethnic conflict. He only recently evaded charges of ‘crimes against humanity’ for his alleged engineering of ethnic violence to bolster himself and his political allies in the disputed 2007 general election. This ethnic violence led to the deaths of over 1,300.
Kenyatta is reported to have fast-tracked the recruitment of 10,000 new police as part of his response to al-Shabaab’s attacks. These will be used against religious and ethnic minorities if they are under Kenyatta’s control. The working class and poor of Kenya must not walk into the sectarian trap being laid by Kenyatta to bolster his own support. Students protesting this week in Nairobi demanding increased security for university campuses must not inadvertently lend their support to strengthening the repressive apparatus of this pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist president. Such forces will eventually be used against the student movement and the workers movement.
In recent weeks, under the guise of an anti-corruption drive, five ministers and 17 other senior officials have been forced to resign. Unusually, the presidency has dealt with these cases rather than the director of public prosecutions. This is because this so-called anti-corruption drive is in reality an attempt to further secure Kenyatta’s position. Nearly all those targeted are Kenyatta’s political rivals. Kenyatta and his government cannot be trusted by the working class, the poor and the youth.
Build the forces of socialism in Africa
The Committee for a Workers International is building its forces across the African continent. The working class, the poor, the students and the youth must unite in the struggle for a socialist Africa and a socialist world. We oppose imperialism on the continent, the pro-capitalist corrupt regimes of Kenya and elsewhere, and the manifestations of barbarism like al-Shabaab. We call for the building of mass parties of the working class and poor. We appeal to those in Kenya, Somalia and across the region and the continent to join with us and assist us to assemble a revolutionary cadre standing upon the ideas of socialism.
What we stand for:
- Imperialism out of Africa! Close down US, French and other military bases on the continent. Oppose the military deployments of the African Union, the UN and all other proxies for imperialism.
- No to rule by predatory elites, whether al-Shabaab, warlords or imperialist imposed regimes. For governments of the working class, poor and peasantry.
- Disband the US-sponsored predatory police force and army in Somalia. For democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-clan, mass defence organisations to defend communities against the terrorism of al-Shabaab and the brutality of occupying powers.
- For minority rights and the right to self-determination for all oppressed national groups.
- For the democratic freedoms of speech, assembly and organisation, not as a Trojan horse for imperialism but to allow the working class, the poor and the youth to politically organise and fight for higher living standards.
- Struggle for massive economic development and job creation across the continent upon the basis of nationalisation of industry, mineral wealth and other natural resources under workers control and land reform under the control of rural communities.
- All food and development aid to be under the control of democratically elected committees of workers and communities.
- Organise united struggle against job cuts and pay cuts in the Kenyan tourism industry; nationalise job cutting big businesses under workers control.
- Build mass working class and poor people’s parties with socialist programmes across Africa, uniting in common struggle. Build the revolutionary forces of the CWI.
- For a socialist Africa and a socialist world.