Research on Kenyan counterterrorism Policy
In terms of my research, it is clear that Garissa had a profound effect on Kenyan counterterror policy. The country's deputy president, William Ruto, famous called the event “Kenya's 9/11” and I don't believe that assessment to be inaccurate in terms of how profoundly it shook the average Kenyan. The government's response has surprised me in a few ways. Many aspects of it, including attempting to close a refugee camp on the Somali border and the harassment of Muslims throughout the country, are exactly the kind of heavy-handed policies I expected to see. Yet President Kenyatta's call for amnesty for Kenyans who traveled to Somalia but want to return home and a sincere commitment to combating youth unemployment have surprised me. However, multiple times during interviews individuals have remarked that because al-Shabaab specifically targeted non-Muslims at Garissa, the government can no longer pretend that terrorism in Kenya is not a Muslim problem. Despite this, I am cautiously optimistic that Kenya will be able to balance antagonizing the country's Muslim community with strengthening its intelligence collection and counter-radicalization programs.
At least once I day I hear or read something about President Obama's planned visit to Kenya at the end of July. The fuss about Obama's Kenyan heritage has died down in the U.S. since the last election, but everyone in Kenya eagerly awaiting his attendance at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi. His grandmother, known as Mama Sarah, has become a fairly big celebrity here as Kenya anxiously waits to see if Obama will make a pilgrimage to his father's grave in the village of Kogelo. I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that I will be in Tanzania when during Obama's visit. On one hand, it would be an amazing experience to witness the reaction to a Kenyan national hero returning home. On the other, the traffic in Nairobi is already a nightmare as it is and the city will grind to a halt for the entire time the President is here.
How will this experience help you in your job search and career?
My trip to Kenya and Tanzania will help my career in two ways. First, I think that it is critical to spend some time in a region before you can attempt to analyze its political or security dynamics in any meaningful way. I have always found people who call themselves Africa or Asia or Middle East experts back in D.C. and have never spent time in that region somewhat disingenuous. Having a sense of the people, culture, and history of a region gives you a better insight into how they view the world. My chosen area of interest is sub-Saharan Africa, specifically East Africa, so I feel that any time I can spend here will greatly enhance my ability to understand regional dynamics.
Additionally, I will (hopefully) be conversational in Swahili by the time I am done with my program here. I had taken two semester of Swahili as an undergraduate but my ability had deteriorated to the point that basically all I remembered was “hakuna matata.” But its all come back quickly. Knowledge of Swahili will allow me to take jobs that require traveling to or living in East Africa.
What are two interesting things about Kenya that the average person doesn't know?
I would say that even among foreign policy wonks the conflict in Somalia with al-Shabaab and its spillover effects into the rest of East Africa don't have a high profile. Boko Haram has gotten more media attention as of late, but al-Shabaab is one of the few jihadist groups in history that has been able to hold and govern territory for long periods of time. In a place like Somalia where there is a decades-long power vacuum, a group that can enforce sharia law successfully can be appealing. I think that point should be getting more attention as the U.S. struggles to come up with a strategy to combat ISIS. Our de facto strategy of active containment might be wrong if ISIS, like al-Shabaab, figures out a way to rule sustainably.
The other thing about Kenya that most people don't know is how involved the U.S. is in the country. Kenya is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid outside of the Middle East. We have troops stationed here to help support the AMISOM mission in Somalia. U.S. relations with Kenya stretch all the way back to before the country's independence in 1963. In the early 1960s, the Airlift Africa project helped to bring young Kenyans to the U.S. to study at universities. One of the young men who ended up in Hawaii as a result of the trail blazed by Airlift Africa was named Barack Obama, Sr. and his son would go on to become president.
What is the best day you had on your trip?
So far, I would say that my best experience here has been at Hell's Gate national park just outside of Nairobi. It doesn't take long in Africa to accept seeing all sorts of wildlife as normal. Monkeys snatching food off your plate and giraffes standing on the side of the highway are fairly common in Kenya. But at Hell's Gate I was able to rent a bicycle and ride through the park just feet away from zebras, antelopes, and buffaloes. I managed to drag myself out of bed early enough in the morning that I was the first person into the park. The experience of essentially doing a safari on a bicycle is something that I will never forget.