**On a personal note, I was extremely hesitant to post this. This has been not only a national tragedy with global ramifications, but it has been a personal one for so many families including many that I know. Through conversations with friends, with all of us trying to make sense of this madness, I have been asked repeatedly to write down my thoughts. Whilst, I am keenly aware that the timing of this post may seem controversial, my hope is that it will spur a conversation that leads to healing and importantly, proactive solutions to the underlying enablers of this tragedy. I will apologize in advance if the timing or conclusions are offensive. They are my opinions and I take sole responsibility for them.
Sitting at the waterhole, I am watching the big bull elephants come quietly for a drink. They approach cautiously, emerging from the scrub of the surrounding woodland. Their skin is deeply furrowed by age and the tough tree branches, under which they have been hiding during the heat of the day, scrape along their sides with a leathery rasping sound. They are majestic and their ivory glints in the sun. However, the signs of war are never far. One old bull shows evidence of abscesses caused by bullets and arrowheads that have festered under his tough skin for several days, possibly weeks. These bulls are wounded warriors, making their last stand here in Kenya. Kenya’s wild lands are a warzone right now, and on Saturday, the war was brought to our city in an excruciatingly painful way.
One hundred years ago, this same waterhole where I am standing was part of a warzone as well. The British troops, with their puttees and pith helmets, fought the wily Germans in what must have been the most bizarre campaigns of the First World War. Both armies claimed vast swathes of land for themselves, and the suffering that the floundering new countries endured during that time is something we are beginning to feel today. What the hell were they fighting over in this part of the country? Then as now, it was natural resources. One hundred years ago, it was land, and the power and influence that comes with control of natural resources. Now it is much the same.
Working on the “front lines” of this current war have been our wildlife, and forest agencies. They have been gallant, brave and received very few accolades for the incredible sacrifices they have made, including an astounding number of casualties. Sadly, we are collectively failing on many fronts. Overstretched and under-resourced, we have been fighting an unseen war for years. Moreover, we spend as much of our time fighting our own impotent systems and entrenched corruption, as fighting the enemy. We are failing to control vast parts of our country. You may be saying to yourself, “what the hell does this have to do with the Westgate tragedy”? Well, the simple truth is, everything.
Al Shabaab, the group that has claimed responsibility for the attacks in Westgate, have been operating well inside Kenya’s borders for some time now, but more often than not, in the ways we would not expect. Yes, there have been repeated grenade attacks in Garissa and Nairobi, and abductions in Wajir. But the bulk of their impact has been unseen, until now.
One thing that we have overlooked in the general discourse about religious extremism, is that no matter how hard you pray, it is unlikely that God is going to send you MPESA payments that you can pay for bullets and grenades with. Extremists (of all religions and creeds) need revenue and to do so, at least in part, they look to the land where they are operating. They are often heavily involved in cartels, massive taxation drives, and organized crime, and Al-Shabab is no different. Worse still, in a very real sense, we Kenyans, have enabled them to operate with impunity for the most part.
Just as the Taliban have used the poppy fields of Afghanistan, Al Shabaab are using our elephants and our trees, in the form of ivory and charcoal to underwrite their activities. They do this through a variety of indirect and some direct routes, including massive taxation and even direct trade. The bullets that are used in attacks are purchased with that money, and yet resources such as charcoal are still under-regulated by our current systems. Suspects caught with ivory are given paltry fines and the payoff is worth the risk. In effect, they are using our own natural resources to kill us. And yet, most of us Kenyans have failed to see the linkages. We like cheap, unregulated charcoal for example. Why would we want it to be more regulated?
The thing about extremism is that without assets, it is hot air and a bit of hate speech, both bad enough in their own right, but not bloody sieges. But when given access to a resource base that can be traded for influence, money and resources, extremism is incredibly dangerous. It is common knowledge that much of the revenue from the sale of poached ivory is finding its way back to Somalia, and into the hands of Al Shabaab. This may be through familial links to crime syndicates or zakat taxataion. Even more directly, charcoal is acting as an equally and even more pervasive revenue stream. When the Kenya Defence Forces took Kismayo from Al Shabaab in 2012, they found as much as 4 million bags of charcoal waiting to be exported, estimated to be worth a staggering 25 million USD, a healthy chunk of change to anyone in the world, let alone a terrorist group, bent on annihilating us.
Worse still is that our leaders have been slow to see the link. Thankfully, they are coming around but in some cases, some our leaders are still bent on their own personal interests, and are actually fighting against the regulation. They cite non-existent rights to continue herding their cattle into our national parks, and by posing as herders, this gives room for unprecedented access to slaughter elephants as they are doing here in Tsavo.
Even after our wildlife agencies catch a suspect, our regulations for dealing with ivory traffickers are effete and impotent, and our charcoal regulations are even more so. In short, an overall lack of management of our core natural resources is creating a governance vacuum in areas that are well off the beaten track, leaving natural resources to be exploited by the worst possible people.
An encouraging trend is the recent action to strengthen the penal actions accorded to our courts’, strengthening their ability to imprison those involved in ivory trading. This is a positive trend and gives me hope that the links between the terrible events such as those at Westgate will be seen through the lens of what they are: a natural resource management problem coupled with the ferocity of extremist ideology.
I have no doubt that we as Kenyans will persevere, we will overcome and we will achieve the type of Kenya we all want. However, settling for the status quo again, as opposed to ensuring we don’t repeat this type of episode in our future, are two very different roads. We have a choice to make here. We must see that a critical part of that foundation is to find a way to bring governance to our natural resources, because if we don’t someone else will and the likelihood that they will use it against us, instead of for our collective benefit, is very high indeed.
As we process through the mental and physical anguish that follows the Westgate tragedy, we will undoubtedly face the full array of human grieving and we must come out of that, prepared for positive actions. We must transform our collective pain, our collective anguish and bereavement into something that will crush the extremists. But it has to start with reforming our foundations. And by our foundations, I mean how we govern our collective natural resources, on which this country depends. If we are to grow as a nation it is important for us to look at ways which we can better govern ourselves and prevent the empowerment of extremists. If we want to achieve goals like Vision 2030, let us realize that we need a foundation that treats natural resource management as paramount to overcoming this war. If not, all the oil in Turkana, all the gas off of our coast, every elephant and rhino in our parks and reserves, and every drop of water we have will not insulate us from this type of terror. Rather, it will attract it. I don’t say these things to take away from our anguish, but to inspire us to change the way we govern.