Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Kenya’s security crisis worsens after Mpeketoni attacks

 By Patrick Mutahi

The Mpeketoni attacks that took place on the 15th and 16th of June have led to a renewal of political divisions in Kenya and concerns over state responses to terrorism. While Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks as retaliation for “the [Kenyan] government’s brutal oppression of Muslims in Kenya,” President Uhuru Kenyatta blamed “local political networks”, insinuating that opposition figures were behind efforts to foment violence.

Wherever the truth may lie, Kenya has been affected by a spate of attacks in recent years. According to analysis by the Nairobi-based Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies, the Mpeketoni attacks were the 61st to take place since Kenya’s military incursion into Somalia (Operation Linda Nchi) began in October 2011. Over half of these attacks have occurred in the country’s northeast, in Mandera, Garissa and Wajir. Police stations and vehicles, nightclubs and bars, churches, and mosques have all been targeted. The frequency of attacks has varied over time, with sharp spikes (such as in April 2012 when seven attacks were reported) punctuating longer periods when there were few attacks, such as in 2013 when only eleven attacks were reported. However, there has been an uptick in attacks in 2014, with five attacks in May alone.

Al Shabaab only claimed responsibility for six attacks 


These attacks would advance its strategy to destabilise Kenya by instilling fear and contributing to a sense of insecurity. However, Al Shabaab has claimed responsibility for only six attacks since October 2011, with no one coming forward to claim responsibility for the other attacks. One theory is that Al Shabaab sympathisers are carrying out attacks independently of its command structures. Al Shabaab has many supporters in Kenya and a strong presence in places like Eastleigh, the centre for Nairobi’s Somali community. [1]  Further, Al Shabaab has adapted its recruitment strategy, and increasingly draws in young Kenyans who are not Somali. This has become an achilles heal for the Kenyan government, raising counter-radicalisation of the youth to the top of the its security agenda.

Yet, in spite of the trend of worsening insecurity, there have been few arrests, feeding an impression that the state has lost control over the situation. In April 2014, the government launched Operation Usalama Watch, a crackdown on illegal immigrants. The operation was concentrated in neighbourhoods of Nairobi with large Somali populations, including Eastleigh and South C. The police conducted house to house searches, arresting anyone who did not have a form of Kenyan identification or valid travel document. Those arrested were taken to the city’s Kasarani Gymnasium and some were deported to Somalia, raising the ire of Somali leaders, other Kenyan opposition politicians, human rights advocates, and legal experts.

Draconian measures being adopted are counter-productive and breed resentment


The Kenyan government’s response to worsening security fits a wider pattern of draconian counter-terrorism measures adopted by governments in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. Governments curtail human rights and basic freedoms in the name of strengthening security and safeguarding poorly defined ‘national interests’. Yet, trampling on human rights and civil liberties is dangerously counter-productive. The smouldering resentment it breeds risks generating terrorist recruits, alienates potential anti-terrorism allies, and weakens efforts to curb terrorist atrocities.  In order to guarantee national security, protecting human rights and continued vigilance are paramount.

Ultimately, Kenya’s faltering responses to recent attacks only serve to feed a dynamic that further destabilises the country. They are also no substitute for serious security sector reforms. The Kenyan police forces are still largely reviled by a public that has long been accustomed to its corrupt, abusive and otherwise unprofessional practices. Other security agencies have been complicit in political repression, eroding public confidence in the state’s abilities to provide secure for all citizens without bias. A lack of adequate resources, poor training, weak leadership and an institutionalized culture of unaccountability in policing and security institutions have grievously undermined public faith and trust. Thus, security sector reforms – and not swoops by security departments that disproportionately target certain communities – will be critical for strengthening security and winning wider public support for the fight against terrorism in all its forms.

[1] Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Internal Security and Provincial Administration, Orwa Ojode likened the Al Shabaab to a snake whose head was in Eastleigh, Nairobi and tail in Somalia. Tom Odula, “War Fears: Somalis in Kenya Afraid of Xenophobia”, Associated Press, 11 November 2011.

[2] Roth Kenneth, ‘Human Rights, the Bush Administration, and the Fight Against Terrorism: The Need for a Positive Vision’ in

Patrick Mutahi is a researcher at the Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies in Nairobi. Patrick has worked with the IDS Addressing and Mitigating Violence programme, and co-authored the report: Missing the Point: Violence Reduction and Policy Misadventures in Nairobi's Poor Neighbourhoods.