The blood shed in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre during the weekend siege may have far more of an impact on us here in Britain than we at first assume. Kenya remains critical to Britain’s global interests and domestic affairs, and the Islamists’ slaughter of shoppers is meant to serve as a warning to foreigners in east Africa.
Nairobi is our main trade, travel and aid hub to Africa; it is the source of our influence on the continent (albeit diminishing). Trade between the UK and Kenya grows, past £1bn a year, and British companies have £2bn of investments there. Security links with the Kenyans are considered vital by our intelligence services, who use the country as a base to help counter the threat from neighbouring Somalia – second only to Pakistan as a destination for extremist British Muslims to receive paramilitary training.
Whitehall and Washington fear that the new Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces trial at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, will turn to China and India.
Al-Shabaab, who ruled Somalia until they were beaten back by an international coalition led by the African Union, were the mob who took to beheading civilians, burying teenage girls up to their necks in sand and stoning them to death.
The Nairobi shopping centre attack sees the Shabaab enter a new phase. “I think this is just the beginning,” warns the Pentagon’s former director of African counterterrorism, Rudy Atallah. “An attack like this gives them the capability to recruit, it shows off their abilities.”
It is 118 years since the Berlin Conference formalised Europe’s Scramble for Africa, designating 250,000 sq miles from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria as British East Africa. Our motives are not much purer now, our African allies hold powerful bargaining positions and we cannot put boots on the ground. But we can ill afford to relinquish our influence in the region.