Kenya and East Africa will probably take a while to forget the early morning Thursday massacre of 148 in an attack by Somalia al-Shabaab militants on a college.
At least four gunmen stormed Garissa University, about 330 kilometres northeast of the capital, Nairobi, before dawn. They took students hostage, sorted them between Muslims and non-Muslims, and slaughtered the non-Muslims. After the first few days of shock, inevitably recrimination – especially over perceived State failures – has set in.
Away from the heart-breaking scenes of families dealing with loss of their loved ones, and the big guns that are out, the Garissa massacre tells us some troubling lessons about terrorism in the region.
It seems, first, that terrorists understand how African States work – they concentrate a lot of their security assets to protect the capitals, leaving few resources to secure the rest of the country.
In the early years, the terrorists also concentrated their efforts in attacking soft targets in the capitals and big cities, because the impact and the international headline premium are bigger.
However, since the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2014, all the big Shabaab attacks have been in cities and towns far away from the capital. It is probably a lesson Africa’s terror groups have learnt from the narrow-mindedness of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which doesn’t venture too far from the northeast region in wreaking its mayhem.
Yet it nearly succeeded in bringing down the Nigerian government, and certainly cost president Goodluck Jonathan an election. For the terrorists, it costs fewer men and treasure, and the risks are lower. It might take longer, but eventually they are able to bleed out the government.
What Boko Haram, and now Shabaab, are teaching us is that to survive the threat, African states will have to reorganise the logic on which they have been based over the last 100 years. The one fact that strikes me most about the Garissa attack is that one of the masked attackers was identified as a Kenyan national, Abdirahim Abdullahi, described as an A-grade law graduate.
He is from a middle class family, and disappeared in 2013. His father, a government official in Garissa, reported him missing, and even suggested that he feared the young man had joined Shabaab across the border.
It raises pretty much the same debate that is happening in the West, about why middle class students, who go to some of the best universities in the world, run off to join Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to behead people. The main explanation is that they feel alienation and unloved by the societies their parents emigrated to.
In Africa, the argument has been young people, after spending years in school; get very frustrated when they end up unemployed. Extremist groups offer them brother and sisterhood, plus some “purpose”.
The best solution to all these is education reform. First we must end the Museveni-fuelled hostility and disinvestment in the liberal arts and social sciences. Along with that, introduce more open and critical thinking in schools. If a student can only cram and is not allowed to challenge the teacher or question the wisdom of the textbooks, how can he be expected to question a jihadist mullah?
The education reform will not so much offer more practical skills training, as changes students’ view of themselves as free individuals.
The education system we have actually already produces some students who have skills to be so-called “job creators not job seekers”. The bigger problem is that they are not confident in their power as individuals who can remake and reorder their world.
Finland, one of the world leaders in education, and the envy of many, has been foresighted and is tackling this problem with what is considered the most radical change to a learning system.
It is getting rid of “teaching by subject” and replacing it with “teaching by topic”.
An education official was quoted saying; “What we need now is a different kind of education to prepare people for working life.
“Young people use quite advanced computers. In the past, the banks had lots of bank clerks totting up figures but now that has totally changed.
“We therefore have to make the changes in education that are necessary for industry and modern society.”
So the good Finns are introducing “phenomenon” teaching. As one newspaper described it, a teenager studying a vocational course might also take lessons which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.
You not only change young people’s view of how events are connected, but you dramatically increase their options in life. A violent sheikh recruiting an Engineering major to be a terrorist bomb-maker, would encounter a student who has knowledge of world history and thus less susceptible.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA (mgafrica.com). Twitter:@cobbo3