After the coldblooded murder of three Christian teachers – including a couple soon to be married – in north-eastern Kenya by suspected Al-Shabaab gunmen, fear is growing that the Islamist militant group is targeting education, and its proponents, in the predominantly Muslim region.
Seth Oluoch Odada and Kevin Shari were shot dead in a dawn attack at Qarsa Primary school in Wajir County on 16 February, the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) said. Odada’s fiancée, Caroline, was also killed, and another teacher left nursing serious bullet wounds.
Amid growing concerns that Al-Shabaab could be launching a new wave of attacks in the region, reports indicate that teachers are now fleeing the area. On Monday (20 February), a number of teachers arrived at the TSC headquarters in Nairobi, demanding transfers to safer areas.
“I have never seen so much fear among the teachers. Many of them want to leave, but I have heard the headteachers are stopping them,” said Fr. Alfred Murithi, a Roman Catholic priest in Wajir town in a telephone interview with World Watch Monitor. “I think the attackers wanted to cause fear and disrupt learning in this region. We have been questioning the overall motive. We think it’s senseless.”
According to the priest, Christian teachers say they face many challenges, such as discrimination by the local communities along religious lines, since they are not Muslims.
“Those who are in towns say they encounter less challenges, but those in rural areas say they are not welcomed and treated as outsiders by the community,” said Fr. Murithi.
Wajir, like other counties in the region, is predominantly Muslim, but in both public and private schools, the majority of the teachers (roughly estimated at 60 per cent) are Christians.
The region is considered a high security risk due to its proximity to Somalia – the troubled Horn of Africa country is the traditional base of Al-Shabaab, the East African affiliate of Al-Qaeda.
At the same time, the latest incident has rekindled memories of a bus attack in November 2014 in Mandera County, when 22 teachers were shot dead by militants as they travelled home for Christmas. The gunmen separated Christians and shot them dead in cold blood. Around the same time, the militants also killed 36 quarry workers in Mandera.
“Every time we are losing teachers in these areas and this is a major concern. No matter how much we distribute teachers, how do you tell them to go to this insecurity-prone area,” Nancy Macharia, the TSC head, told a Parliamentary Commission on Education yesterday (20 February).
Al-Shabaab has in the past carried out deadly attacks on churches, police stations and government installations in the northeast. Recently, it has targeted communication masts, cutting off mobile phone services in the region.
In 2015, Al-Shabaab gunmen armed with AK47s stormed the Garissa University College, killing 148 people, mainly Christian students, but this latest incident is the first time the militants have targeted a primary school.
“The attack on Qarsa Primary School is an important reminder to us that learning institutions in Kenya, as in other countries across the world, remain a soft target for terrorists,” said Dr. Amina Mohammed, the Education Cabinet Secretary, in a statement in which she also expressed her sympathies to the families.
“The Ministry of Education is alive to this reality and has formulated appropriate measures and guidelines in order to ensure the safety of our learners [and] teachers from terrorism and other threats,” she added.
On Monday, 19 February, the police said they had arrested Abdow Shukri Isack – a local resident – in connection with attack. Earlier, Mohamud Saleh, the North Eastern Regional Coordinator for the police, said he was also seeking the arrest of Maalim Yusuf Abdullah, a Wajir resident described by security services as the mastermind of the attack, and another two suspected accomplices: Daudi Ahmed Mohammed and Abdirashid Ibrahim Osman. He demanded the area chiefs arrested them in the shortest time possible.
Meanwhile, Christians in Lamu, a county in Kenya’s coastal region, have been coming under increased pressure from attackers suspected to be members of Al-Shabaab.
Church sources say the attackers have been forcing residents to flee their homes to seek refuge in schools, churches and government centres in the area. In Witu town, the evangelical African Inland Church (AIC), the Roman Catholic church and a local primary school have acted as shelters.
“They have been killing Christians or non-Muslims who can’t recite their prayers,” Fr. Peter Kariuki, a priest in the Hindi area of Lamu, told World Watch Monitor.
The militants have targeted buses, police stations and villages, and have sometimes collected the villagers into mosques, where they have given lectures about Al-Shabaab’s ideology.
Jaysh la Ayman, an Al-Shabaab cell in Kenya, has been blamed for the attacks in Lamu and other parts of the country. It has been using Boni, a densely populated forest in the county, as a cover to terrorise and raid Christian villages.