East Africa

Kenya’s Infighting is Good for No-one, Except Al-Shabaab

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Unlike after the Westgate siege, the attack on Mpeketoni has left Kenya more divided and therefore more vulnerable.

The response to the attacks in and around Mpeketoni earlier this month, in which over 60 people were killed, could not have been more different to the reaction prompted by the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in September 2013, when 67 were murdered.

On an international level, there was comparatively little media coverage and a muffled international outcry over Mpeketoni, despite the similar death tolls.

Domestically too, the response differed significantly. In the wake of Westgate, the nation became galvanised and united in rebuking the threat posed by the Somali Islamist militants al-Shabaab who were responsible for the siege. Following the Mpeketoni attack, however, confusion ran amok and the finger of blame was pointed in all directions. The incident was treated less as a tragedy and more as an opportunity for political point-scoring.

Initially, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for Mpeketoni killings through a spokesperson, declaring that Kenya was now “officially a war zone.” However, in a speech to the nation the next day, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta dismissed the notion that the Islamist militants were behind the attack, maintaining instead that it was “politically motivated ethnic violence.”

Though he did not explicitly mention names, local media outlets interpreted Kenyatta’s allegations as being aimed at the leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga. In response to these apparent accusations, Odinga in turn blamed the Kenyatta administration for failing to address the security situation since Westgate and called for the resignation of Joseph ole Lenku, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government.

Playing into the hands of al-Shabaab

Regardless of where responsibility lies, the Kenyatta government’s security policy since Westgate has done little to assuage fears of renewed attacks. In particular, its infamous crackdown in the form of Operation Usalama Watch (usalama meaning security in Kiswahili) has arguably aggravated the situation.

The operation was ostensibly a counter-terrorism initiative seeking to “weed out criminal elements” in Eastleigh, Nairobi’s predominately Somali neighbourhood. However, this intention seems to have been undermined by security officials going indiscriminately from door-to-door, often in the dead of the night, rounding people up and apprehending them indefinitely in Kasarani Stadium, as outlined in a recent Amnesty International report. Rather than targeting individuals, the report suggests that the operation ended up being “a pretext for the blanket targeting of the Somali community.” Whilst recognising that Kenya has legitimate security problems, the researchers warn that treating the Somali community as “scapegoats” is counterproductive.

The policy may have worked in al-Shabaab’s favour. As Laura Hammond, an expert on Somalia at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), puts it, “every time [the Kenyan government] ramps up its hostility towards Somalis it plays directly into the hands of al-Shabaab, who are seeking to cast the Kenyan government as anti-Somali and anti-Muslim… The possibility for increased radicalism becomes greater.”

Indeed, in pursuing such a policy, the Kenyan government is throwing away one of the few assets available to it in the fight against terrorism: namely, that of collaboration and cooperation with the Somali community.

Moving south

Al-Shabaab is all too aware of the fact that Kenya is becoming a more fertile ground for recruitment, and it appears to be moving south to take advantage of this. In fact, the need to expand beyond Somalia’s borders was already integral to the organisation’s survival strategy. According to Nic Cheeseman, Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, “The weaker [al-Shabaab] has become domestically, the more aggressive it seems to have become internationally, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to provoke the Kenyan government into actions that would alienate Kenya’s Muslim minority and so build a new constituency into which it can grow.”

In this respect, the Kenyatta government has aided al-Shabaab’s cause and shot itself in the foot. Pointing the finger of blame at each other as well as the Somali community has left the country divided and more vulnerable to attack. And as one commentator observed, it now makes sense for al-Shabaab to try to heighten these divisions and ethnic tensions by going for “working class targets” such as “buses, matatus, markets, and pubs.” High-profile targets such as Westgate, by contrast, risk generating solidarity amongst Kenyans and bringing international support.

Indeed, the low-profile attack on Mpeketoni seems to have turned Kenyans against one other. Politicians have begun to engage in a debate that is eerily reminiscent of rhetoric leading up to the post-election violence of 2007/2008. Negative ethnicity, as Koigi wa Wambere has termed it, is slowly creeping back into the discourse as politicians interpret where the blame for the Mpeketoni attacks should be apportioned through an ethnic lens. And by labelling the attack as “politically motivated ethnic violence”, Kenyatta might inadvertently be offering ethnicity as the best framework for making sense of future terrorism incidents.

Kenya’s politicians would do well to be wary of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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