Kenya’s Garissa students thought a poster warning of an imminent terrorist attack was an April Fools’ prank

A distraught relative
A distraught relative
Image: AP Photo
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It was a raggedy piece of paper on the students’ notice board at Garissa University College in Kenya. Few students who spoke with Quartz can remember the exact wording now but the notice was clear enough in its meaning: a terrorist attack would be carried out on the campus any day now.

Even though the last few years has seen Garissa evolve from a sleepy northeastern Kenyan town on the Somali border into an insecure first-stop for al-Shabaab operatives from Somalia, many students felt the notice was a prank in time for April Fools’ day on Wednesday, April 1st.

But just before dawn on Thursday (April 2nd), when most of the students were asleep in their dormitories, the attacks started.

“I first heard about the warning a week ago, the university was informed that there was a threat, then the day before the attack some students were sharing a warning written on a piece of paper, some students even posted on the official notice board as a poster to warn others who did not hear about the threat,” Vincent Mungaru, a Garissa student told Quartz at the local hospital where the injured were being treated. He was one of the lucky ones who survived the attack unhurt.

But Mungaru like other students who spoke with Quartz thought it was just another overly cautious alert, while  others said they thought it was nothing more than a dark April Fools day joke exploiting previous warnings.

“Why did they target us?”

At least five heavily armed men stormed the facility, killing the guards and making their way to the students’ dormitories. Those men have now been described by authorities as four Somali-Kenyans and one Tanzanian.

The attack left nearly 150 people dead according to Kenyan authorities.

“Why did they target us, why? I came here to learn, I have done nothing to anyone, why kill and maim us?” said Rachael Ndungu, a student injured in the attacks, speaking to Quartz from her hospital bed.

Somalia’s al-Shabaab terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the actions of the Kenyan military in Somalia.

Local security officials showed up soon after the attack started, and the Kenyan interior minister Joseph Nkaissery– was flown in a few hours later. But there has been widespread criticism by anti-terrorism analysts and the local media at how the siege dragged on for 15 hours while scores of students were killed.

A report in Kenya’s Sunday Nation is particularly scathing about how long it took to fly out special tactics teams from Nairobi. The first team arrived around 12.30pm, some 7 hours after the attacks started. The reactive ‘fire-fighting’ strategy the government has employed in its war on terror has also been slammed by analysts. Some are calling for Kenya to do more in preventing the attacks in the first place.

Earlier Warnings

A few weeks before the Garissa attack, foreign governments including Britain and US warned their citizens from traveling to the town and its environs for fear of possible terror attack. The travel warnings did not go down well with the government in Nairobi that insisted terror attacks do happen globally and collaboration between friendly nations is crucial in the fight against terror.

The northeastern region of Kenya has experienced several insecurity acts in the past with recent major one occurring late last year where at least 70 people were butchered by al-Shabaab militants in Mandera, a town that borders both war-torn Somalia and Ethiopia. Such incidents have become norm in the region since Kenya deployed troops across the border into Somalia to flush out Al-Shabaab group from its strongholds.

Thursday’s attack becomes the single most deadly one that Somali militants carried out in the country in a single day. The high profile Westgate Mall attacks of 2013 claimed 67 lives. By targeting the university that has majority of its students coming from other parts of Kenya, the group aimed to cause maximum damage and send message across the country that citizens are targets wherever they are.

Nevertheless, the biggest damage is felt by locals who mostly rely on the expertise of non-locals in the provision of basic services such as health and education. The attacks inflict fear on the hearts of non-locals and will give pause for most of them to keep off the region.

“By targeting students and their teachers, the attackers are sending message that they will paralyze every aspect of our life. I wonder where we will take our children if even schools are not safe anymore,” said Mariam Aden, a mother of a son who was among the victims of the university attack.

Already, trade unionists are calling on doctors and teachers to leave the region, accusing the government of doing little to protect its citizens. Such calls plays into the hands of al-Shabaab, to put pressure on authorities.

Historically, the northern region of Kenya has been marginalized by successive governments. There is limited access to basic social services such as healthcare and education– and recent attacks only worsen the situation for locals.

The university, which was upgraded from a teachers college in 2011, is the first university in a region that is inhabited by ethnic Somalis. The region shares a long and porous border with Somalia and the majority of its population rely on livestock as livelihood

The region has a history of security problems, with its population constantly becoming a target of military operations that lead to horrifc incidents such as massacres. But that has not deterred many Kenyans from other parts of the country from settling and integrated well with the local population. With current security nightmares, the glue that holds the fabric of social coexistence is under threat.