On 18 June, Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta shocked domestic and international observers by claiming that a spate of terrorist attacks were not organized by the radical Islamic group al-shabaab, but were in fact the work of “local political networks”. Critics alleged that the President is seeking to manipulate terrorist activities in order to delegitimize and intimidate his domestic political opponents.
The crisis began on 15-17 June, when the coastal town of Mpeketoni was attacked twice in quick succession, leading to the death of over 60 people. The violence was particularly shocking for two reasons. First, it represented the largest loss of life terrorism in Kenya since the Westgate mall siege of 21 September 2014. Second, the failure of the security services to prevent the second raid – which took place just a day after the first – highlighted the inadequacy of the country’s anti-terror operation.
Al-Shabaab quickly claimed responsibility for the attacks. Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the spokesman for al-shabaab’s military operations, told Reuters that “We raided villages around Mpeketoni again last night” in retaliation for the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia. Ominously, he concluded “Our operations in Kenya will continue.” International media and Kenyan citizens quickly accepted this version of events, which made President Kenyatta’s subsequent denial of al-shabaab involvement all the more surprising.
According to President Kenyatta, the attacks were “well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons … This therefore was not an al-shabaab attack … Evidence indicates that local political networks were involved in the planning and execution of a heinous crime”. Although he did not say it explicitly, the President was suggesting that the attack was a deliberate attempt to drive out members of his own Kikuyu ethnic group from the coast.
Historically, there has consistently been considerable tension on the coast between groups such as the Somalis and the Oromos, coastal groups that support the secessionist Mombasa Revolutionary Council (MRC), and “upcountry” Kenyans who have settled at the coast and taken some of the best land. These tensions intensified during the 2013 general election, when “coastal” candidates feared that they might be defeated by rivals who received much of their support from “upcountry” voters. The government’s recent decision to extend land titles, and land politics in general, has further exacerbated divisions in some areas, because “some locals see the Kikuyus as interlopers, who have become rich after the government gave them land.”
Given that Mpeketoni is a predominantly Kikuyu town, and most of the people who died in the first attack were Kikuyu, President Kenyatta’s comments were not entirely without foundation. Moreover, his statement resonated with the concerns of many members of his community. Following election-related violence of the 1990s and 2008, when Kikuyus were targeted by other ethnic groups, the community is understandably unsettled by any attack that appears to deliberately pick out Kikuyu victims.
However, while inter-communal tensions clearly exist, and may have motivated some Kenyans to participate in the Mpeketoni attack, the President has provided no evidence for his assertion that the attacks were planned by local political networks. What seems more likely is that the impetus and planning for the attack came from al-shabaab, with some assistance from local actors. If this is correct, it raises the question of why the President would seek to deflect the blame from al-shabaab – Kenya’s number one enemy.
According to opposition leaders, the answer is that President Kenyatta is seeking to manipulate the terrorist attacks in order to undermine the position of opposition parties. Following a period of self-imposed exile in the United States, Kenyatta’s main rival, Raila Odinga, recently returned to Kenya. Even since, relations between Kenyatta’s government and Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) have deteriorated. Having failed to persuade the government to openly engage with his party over the numerous problems that marred the 2013 general elections, the ODM has embarked on a campaign of non-violent direct action. Most significantly, Odinga took the bold move of announcing that a rally would take place on 7 July – Saba Saba – a day that Kenyans associate with the mass protests against authoritarian rule that ultimately paved the way for the reintroduction of multiparty politics.
Despite government claims that this was an unsuitable time to call for mass protests, Odinga indicated he was determined to take his supporters to the streets unless Kenyatta responded to his demand for national dialogue by 6 July. In response, government officials warned that if Cord leaders do hold a rally they will do so “at their own risk”; a thinly veiled threat that harsh treatment would be meted out to anyone seen to threaten law and order. Ultimately, the 7 July rally did go ahead thereby providing an opportunity for Odinga to reveal a new 13-point reform agenda specifically targeting what he sees as the executive overreach of the Jubilee government. The attendance was neither particularly impressive nor embarrassing, and so has not radically changed the momentum of opposition politics. Despite some provocation, the police demonstrated considerable restraint, which helped to prevent an escalation of the protest.
Amidst this atmosphere of accusation and counter-accusation, opposition leaders claim that President Kenyatta’s attempts to draw a connection between terrorist attacks and “local political networks” is motivated by his desire to solidify his own position in the face of sustained criticism. If Kenyans can be persuaded that opposition parties represent a genuine security risk, it will be far easier to ban their activities and intimidate their leaders. However, while this strategy may play well with the President’s supporters, many of whom do not trust the ODM and have a strong antipathy to Odinga, it has served to further alienate his opponents and a number of prominent international donors, which is likely to further undermine the prospects for peace and political stability.