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El-Adde could prove to be Kenya’s defining moment

By Makau Mutua | January 31st 2016 at 00:09:09 GMT +0300

They wept in sorrow and grief. But their deaths — and injuries — will not be in vain. Nor will those who may have been taken hostage by the enemy. That place — El-Adde — was the turning point of Kenya’s war against Al-Shabaab. Everything changed on that day — everything.

A remote, godforsaken outpost in the middle of nowhere — a desolate place no one had ever heard of before — has been written in the blood of the gallant men and women of KDF. It’s the single incident in Kenya’s history that may forge us into a nation — as opposed to a collection of tribes. The massacre of KDF soldiers in El-Adde will make us, or break us. I’ll tell you why.

First, countries are much like new offspring. They say those who survive the fifth birthday are more likely to live for a long time. Between the first and the fifth birthday, babies have many false starts and close calls. They are vulnerable. Countries aren’t that different. Their souls can expire before they learn how to fend for themselves.

Metaphorically, a country’s “fifth birthday” is the point of irreversibility. A country that outlives its “fifth birthday” becomes a nation. For some countries, the “fifth birthday” might come in its fiftieth year of existence. For others, it’s one-hundred years. For some, it’s never. Kenya has never celebrated its “fifth birthday.” The El-Adde attack may be the catalyst for that celebration.

Second, while a birth is painful, a birthday is a beautiful thing. But we mistakenly take the Mau Mau war — and Kenya’s independence in 1963 — as the birth certificates of the Kenyan Nation. No — those two epic events were the birth certificates of an African country, not an African nation.

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We are still in search of our “national” birth certificate. Our elites rob and oppress us because they — and we — haven’t cohered into a nation. We don’t know, and don’t have, irreducible Kenyan national interests. Our elites still conflate their personal interests with those of the nation. That’s why we cannibalise each other with corruption, impunity, and tribalism. That’s why our “fifth birthday” remains a mirage — a fiction.

Third, let me give you some perspective. The United States only became a nation — an irreversible polity — after the Civil War; roughly a century after independence from Great Britain. South Africa only became a nation after the long struggle that overthrew Apartheid. Countries need that singular event to transition them from country to nation. I had hoped that the 2010 Constitution was that moment for Kenya. I was wrong.

That’s because a constitution written in peace time lacks the fire to solder a country together. Countries can be soldered into nations by either external or internal exigencies. El-Adde has the distinct potential to be the match that lights our national candle. Its gravity is deep, and singular.

Fourth, I wish Kenya had exhaustively debated the war before going into Somalia. But that’s water under the bridge. We can’t turn tail and run. Al-Shabaab is a menace that can’t be appeased.


Quitting will only embolden it. Al-Shabaab is an existential threat to Kenya. I personally believe Kenya was going to engage Al-Shabaab sooner, or later. So, let’s stop blaming the state for invading Somalia when it did — it was bound to happen. Let’s focus on winning the war. I believe that beating — and utterly decimating Al-Shabaab — will usher in Kenya’s “fifth birthday.” It will define Kenya’s national character. It will be our rite of passage as a nation. But we will collapse if we cut and run.

Fifth, modern states are creatures of violence. States — nations — are forged and maintained by violence. That’s why they insist on the monopoly of the instruments of violence and fear. Those who wield the instruments of violence — the police, security, and armed services — do so on behalf of citizens. Their power to wield the instruments of violence is donated by citizens. Thus the state doesn’t have original power to wield violence.

That’s why we see soldiers as expressions of ourselves — whether we like it, or not. In turn, that’s why when a single soldier falls in combat, we all fall with that soldier. Every soldier who fell, was injured, or was taken hostage in El-Adde, was an embodiment of us.

Finally, I don’t believe there has been a single event as painful to Kenya as El-Adde. It’s true the 2008 electoral violence was demonic — and painful. But it didn’t unite us in grief. It further polarised us. However, El-Adde tells each and every one of us that Kenya could be pulled into the jihadist orbit of violence — and become a failed state — if it doesn’t inflict terminal losses on Al-Shabaab.

el adde attack KDF al shabaab
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