Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Anyone but al-Shabaab: Kenya’s political divisions laid bare by spiraling attacks

Jeremy Lind
Weeks after deadly attacks killed 60 at Mpeketoni in Kenya’s Lamu County, new raids on July 5th in Lamu and Tana River counties left over 20 dead, sowing fear anew in a country growing accustomed to sophisticated attacks of murderous brutality. As before, a heavily armed group came during the night, striking the local police station, torching homes and businesses while targeting men on a killing spree that was rumoured to last for hours.

Less than a day after the latest raids on the settlements of Hindi in Lamu and Gamba in Tana River, Deputy Inspector General of Police Grace Kaindi claimed in a press briefing that the outlawed Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) was behind the attack. This was despite a broadcast on an al-Shabaab-affiliated radio station which stated that the Somalia-based group was responsible for the raid on Hindi (no group has thus far claimed responsibility for the Gamba attack). Explaining the police thinking, Kaindi revealed that a board had been placed at a road junction, with the following message scrawled in chalk:

‘Raila Tosha (Raila is enough, the one who should lead)
MRC munalala (MRC is sleeping)
Waislamu Ardizenu (Muslims, it’s your land)
Sina nyakuliwa (Your land is being taken away)
Amkeni mupigane (Wake up and fight)
you invade Muslim county
and you want to stay in peace 
Kick Christians out Coast
Uhuru down’

While Kaindi acknowledged that the board may have been intentionally placed to divert the attention of investigators, the initial police response to the raids is the latest episode in an unseemly politicisation of recent attacks that have shaken the country. As the al-Shabaab threat looms ever larger in Kenya, its divided political leaders risk leaving Kenyans even more vulnerable to appalling violence.

Westgate horror, political indifference

How did Kenya come to this point? Kenyans briefly united after the assault on the upscale Westgate shopping centre left 67 dead in September of last year. Across social media, Kenyans and friends of Kenya changed their profile pictures to an image of a lone-candle burning, emblazoned with ‘Kenya’. Ordinary Kenyans from across regional and religious divides brought food and thermoses of hot tea to the military personnel stationed at the blockades set-up in the city’s Westlands neighbourhood, as gunfire continued to ring out from the complex. President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nephew was amongst those killed, cut a unifying figure on national television.

Days later, walking hand-in-hand with Deputy President William Ruto and Opposition Leader Raila Odinga into an inter-faith prayer service at the city’s eponymous Kenyatta International Conference Centre, the President announced that he would establish a Commission of Inquiry into the attacks. Nearly 10 months later, the Commission has yet to be created, and Kenyatta has been silent on the matter. In the weeks after the attack, CCTV footage aired on a Kenyan television network showed members of Kenya’s military looting a supermarket. Later, two soldiers were jailed, leaving bigger concerns of discipline and professionalism in the security services unaddressed.

Today, the partially-scaffolded, boarded-up Westgate centre stands as an eerie reminder of death and ineptitude. Surprisingly, the issue has generated very little public debate, even though attacks have multiplied, from bombed markets in the city’s working class neighbourhood of Gikomba, to exploding matatus on the Thika superhighway, to village massacres. Writing in Kenya’s Standard broadsheet, Kethi Kilonzo, an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya, wrote, ‘to date the country does not know how, why, who, where, and when. Terrorism and the terrorists have not been stopped. The question — what next? — remains unanswered. If the failings leading to Westgate had been uncovered, and these gaps and the persons responsible dealt with publicly and resolutely, would this have stopped the terrorism acts that have followed Westgate?’

Although Kenyatta’s failure to establish a Commission of Inquiry has not caused a public backlash – perhaps owing to the fact that past Commissions of Inquiry have been a way for Kenya’s politicians to bury difficult issues – the lack of any official investigation feeds a feeling of despondency and fear over when and where attacks might happen next. In the UK, an inquest into the 7/7 bombings of London’s tubes and buses – the verdict of which was delivered in 2011 nearly six years after the attack – was significant as part of a longer process of reckoning and healing following the seemingly indiscriminate violence.

Although the then-Home Secretary, John Reid, ruled out a public inquiry into the bombings, as a number of bereaved relatives demanded, the inquest presided over by the high court judge Lady Justice Hallett shared considerable insight and findings on possible shortcomings in intelligence and emergency service responses.

So, Kilzono’s question stands: ‘What next?’ For the moment, neither the government nor the opposition seem to have much to say.

Mpeketoni and ‘anyone but al-Shabaab’

Since Westgate, grenade attacks, bomb explosions, ambushes and village massacres have affected Kenyans of many stripes – commuter, police officer and farmer, better off and poor, Somali, Luo and Kikuyu. Yet, as the violence spreads, affecting more and more aspects of ordinary Kenyans’ daily life, a creeping politicisation of the violence has polarised attitudes and occasioned greater discord in the face of a perilous threat. While al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Mpeketoni massacres, in a televised address, President Kenyatta attributed the attack to unspecified ‘local political networks’, leaving little doubt that he blamed the political opposition. Kenyans from many tribes were killed in the massacre, yet Kenyatta’s Kikuyu tribesmen, who settled the area in the 1960s on land given by Kenyatta’s father and first President, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, were disproportionately affected.

Vanished is the presidential figure who originally sought to unite and reassure shocked Kenyans after Westgate. Instead, Kenyatta has stepped right into the fray of politicians’ acrimonious statements as well as hate speech spread by social media and text messages. Already, even before the Mpeketoni attacks, loyalists of Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Coalition sought to portray the earlier attacks as targeting Kikuyu. This, in turn, has fed a perception that the attacks were in fact ethnically-motivated violence perpetrated by sympathisers of the Odinga-headed opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). The fact that no one claimed responsibility left open the possibility that al-Shabaab was not to blame.

The Daily Nation columnist Machario Gaitho wrote, ‘By the time the Mpeketoni attack came about, it was almost as if to confirm the prevailing narrative about a domestic anti-Kikuyu plot. President Kenyatta’s statement now takes that out of the murky realm of Jubilee social media activism and soapbox political rhetoric and elevates it to the official government position on a key national security issue.’

Fast forward two weeks to the Gamba and Hindi attacks and Kaindi’s claim appears less a statement born from extraordinarily efficient investigative abilities by Kenya’s police service and more a knee-jerk reaction to sully Jubilee’s opponents. Anyone but al-Shabaab is now responsible for the attacks. Thus, Kenya has moved in the past two months from suffering a series of attacks that no one claimed responsibility for – but which were thought to possibly be part of an intensifying al-Shabaab campaign in Kenya – to a succession of massacres claimed by al-Shabaab, but which the government and police blame on a range of political dissidents and outlawed domestic groups.

People die, politicians fight

As Kenya’s politicians continue to fight, Kenyans continue to die. The one thing Kenyatta’s blundering response to the Mpeketoni attacks did – and leaving aside whatever the truth may be of who carried out the attacks (Commission of Inquiry anyone?) – is to highlight how effectively al-Shabaab has come under the skin of Kenya’s domestic politics.

A widespread misconception at the moment is to externalise the al-Shabaab threat. This is not of course unique to the current juncture at which Kenya finds itself. In 2009, after al-Shabaab militants kidnapped British holidaymakers at an exclusive idyllic hideaway miles away from Kenya’s border with Somalia, Kenya Defence Forces poured into southern Somalia in an operation dubbed ‘Linda Nchi’ (‘Protect the Country’). Its purpose, ostensibly, was to lend force to the establishment of the pseudo state of Jubaland as a ‘buffer zone’ protecting Kenya from the conflict in Somalia. Subsequently, the Kenyan government pursued a policy of repatriating Somali refugees to Jubaland. A more recent operation in April and May this year, ‘Usalama Watch’ (‘Security Watch’), rounded up thousands of Somalis from Nairobi’s Eastleigh and South C neighbourhoods, who were then incarcerated at the city’s Kasarani stadium for a ‘screening’ process to root out anyone who was in the country illegally.

What all of these security responses have in common is a predilection of blaming ‘the other’, and particularly Somali people, for attacks in the country. Yet, the politicisation of recent attacks only unmasks more fundamental afflictions in Kenya that exist irrespective of al-Shabaab or, for that matter, the conflict in neighbouring Somalia. These include significant regional and ethnicised political divisions, a polarised politics that thrives on scare-mongering and fear, a lack of public trust in policing agencies, and an ossified security apparatus needing reform.

Military adventures in Jubaland and the targeting of Somali populations in Kenya have not strengthened security and have probably worsened an already grave situation. Rather, the safety and security of all Kenyans will only be guaranteed through a serious and sustained effort from its political leaders to address the country’s many long-standing challenges.

By Dr Jeremy Lind
This blog was originally published on African Arguments on  11 July 2014.