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In empty classrooms, evidence of Kenya's struggle to fight Al Shabab

The insecurity along Kenya's border with Somalia has forced an exodus of teachers from Wajir County ahead of the new school year. A spree of attacks by the militant group has been aimed at non-Muslims.

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    Passengers traveling to Nairobi stand in front of a bus, as they wait to be searched for weapons by Kenyan police, in the town of Mandera at the Kenya-Somalia border, December 8, 2014.
    Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
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The threat of Al Shabab lingers in empty classrooms here, abandoned by teachers who fear they’re the next target. 

In November, the Somalia-based militant group attacked a bus in neighboring Mandera County, killing all 28 Christian passengers on board. Most of them were government employees who lived in the predominantly Somali-Muslim county in Kenya’s northeast. 

In sparing the Muslim passengers, Al Shabab sent a clear message: We don’t want Christians here. 

Teachers in neighboring Wajir County heard it. Scores of them missed the Jan. 26 deadline to report for the new school term, which began Jan. 19 – already two weeks delayed by a national teacher strike. Citing the growing insecurity, they are demanding transfers to other counties. 

The uptick in violence, in a county that borders Somalia to the east, is taking a toll on schools, health facilities, and other government services as government workers refuse to return to their posts after the holiday break. Nonlocals make up a disproportionate number of civil servants in these areas. 

Wajir Governor Ahmed Abdullahi told a national paper that more than 266 teachers from the region have reported to the Teachers Service Commission (TSA) headquarters in Nairobi seeking transfer from Wajir, and neighboring Garissa and Mandera. 

"The county government will ensure safety of workers and urges civil servants who left following the attacks to return," Mr. Abdullahi says. 

But not all teachers agree.  

“The photos [of the attack] were just terrible. If you could have seen such photos, definitely you could be traumatized,” says Jepheth Mupakia Wanakai Abdulnassir, a teacher at Wajir High School from Bungoma County, more than 500 miles away. 

“But we took heart and came back,” he says. “We fear the consequence of being sacked [more].” 

Ten of Wajir High School’s 29 teachers were no-shows, all of them from outside Wajir. Mr. Abdulnassir is one of six non-local teachers, out of 16 total, who returned. This is likely a better rate than the schools in more remote areas of the county, which lack the reassuring presence of military and police that a school in town can offer. 

The remaining teachers are teaching doubled-up classes. Teenage boys sit on each other’s laps to fit the 90-something students in one room. 

Just an excuse?

To locals, the abandonment smarts, and citing Al Shabab as a cause seems opportunistic, a convenient excuse for government workers to avoid returning. Assignments in the remote northeast counties have long been seen by civil servants from "down Kenya" as penal postings, due to the area's harsh climate, remote location, and poor economy. 

“They want to invest this opportunity to go back to their homes,” says Abdiaziz Osman, an Arabic teacher at the high school who is from Wajir. “[Wajir] is not alarming. It’s not burning.” 

The number of qualified local teachers falls short and creates a need for non-locals, on five-year contracts, to make up the bulk of teaching staff in the region. 

Decades of violent conflict in northeast Kenya, including a four-year secessionist war to join Somalia, delayed government investment, and it still remains among the most underdeveloped regions, lagging behind in just about every indicator.

“When a colleague is missing on the grounds that this is not a secure place,” Mr. Osman adds, trailing off. “We were together, chatting, doing work together.” 

Rampant insecurity 

The onus for bringing the teachers back and improving security is on the government. 

In the span of two weeks in November, Al Shabab attacked the bus in Mandera, a mining camp, and a nightclub in Wajir. These prompted fierce public outcry, toppling the two top national security officials and sending Kenyan military and intelligence reinforcements hurrying up to the northeast. 

“It was a reminder that we needed to step up,” says County Commissioner Fredrick Shisia, who arrived in Wajir six months ago. 

The 250-kilometer (155-mile) border between Wajir and Somalia – or lack therof – is the key security challenge. 

There is no clear border boundary. Pastoralists and their herds are constantly crossing back and forth, and families and clans straddle both sides. It is difficult to differentiate who may be a militant and who is civilian. 

“We cannot stop people from crossing,” says Mr. Shisia. 

Wajir town itself is under military patrol every night, and vehicles on the sand streets after dark are stopped and their occupants questioned. There are plainclothes police in the market, schools have armed security 24 hours a day, and clubs are required to close by 8 p.m. 

All of this is just a precaution, Shisia says. 

“I think the problem of Wajir is more perception than reality on the ground,” he says. “We are a victim of circumstances [in Mandera]. Arising from that is the perception that this area is burning.” 

Still, a national mobile phone network went down near the border two nights in a row this week, typically a sign that Al Shabab is operating in the area, according to a security source with connections to local Kenyan intelligence. 

Though Shisia has ideas, like a settlement every 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) to act as government surveillance posts, he acknowledges that ensuring total border security is out of his hands. 

“Until there is a stable government in Somalia, it’s not possible.”

Resentment among colleagues

Eustace Nyaga, a primary school teacher from Embu in central Kenya, has been here 13 years. He feels pretty comfortable, as if he understands the local Somalis.

But he would have left a long time ago if he didn’t feel called to stay and help lead the Anglican Church here – and he fully supports those government workers trying to decamp.

“When you are here, you can be targeted at any time,” he says. “It’s a foreign land.” 

Wajir High School's Deputy Principal Idle Haret, a Wajir native, is scornful of the no-shows. He was annoyed when the government extended the deadline for returning teachers once again, to Feb. 2, even though local leaders want to declare the posts of absentee teachers vacant. On Tuesday, the TSA warned missing teachers that they would be replaced if they do not return to work next week. 

“The government has failed in its mandate to make sure basic services are offered and there is equality in Kenya,” he says. “We will have low performance, even compared to previous years.”

As for the rising transfer requests, Deputy County Commissioner Peter Mgeleiyo Lotulia says they aren’t going to happen. 

“That would be an admission that part of Kenya has fallen to Al Shabab.”

The Ford Foundation supported Ariel Zirulnick's reporting from Wajir, Kenya. 

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