As forensic investigators comb the Westgate mall for clues about the insurgents, anger at the security failure grows
In the wake of the murderous attack at Westgate Shopping Mall, President Uhuru Kenyatta faces tough questions about the probity and efficacy of his government. Kenyatta received a huge diplomatic boost from the attack, which began on 21 September, with widespread calls for the immediate cessation of his case before the International Criminal Court. However, that rapidly gave way to a more critical view of his government and its security system. Politicians and media are openly calling for the sacking of the prickly Cabinet Secretary for the Interior, Joseph Ole Lenku, and the Director of the National Intelligence Service, Major General (Retired) Michael Gichangi.
After an initially shaky response to the attack, Kenyatta responded to the tragedy with some powerfully delivered and well-scripted speeches: ‘We must live as a tolerant and diverse society.’ They bore comparison with United States President George W. Bush’s comment that Al Qaida’s 11 September 2001 attacks had given him a mission. As Kenyatta was making his unity speeches, his diplomats were working to get the ICC trial of Deputy President William Ruto suspended, so that he could return to Nairobi to help manage the crisis. They had succeeded by early on 23 September. At the same time, Kenyan leaders insisted the country was the target of an international terrorist campaign, far beyond local or regional politics.
The message was clear: Kenya could not afford to lose its President and his Deputy to these much-criticised judicial proceedings in the Hague at a time of national crisis and tragedy. For Kenyatta and Ruto, it was an ideal preamble to the extraordinary meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa on 12 October to debate a continental withdrawal from the ICC. ‘It’s hard to overestimate how determined Kenyatta and Ruto are to stop the ICC trials in their tracks – and the mood here after the weekend attacks could hardly be better for them,’ an East African diplomat told Africa Confidential at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Right on cue, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, now a close ally of Kenyatta’s, told the General Assembly on 24 September: ‘The ICC, in a shallow, biased way, has continued to mishandle complex African issues. This is not acceptable. The ICC should stop.’ That’s quite a U-turn from a leader whose government five years ago requested the ICC to indict Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army and help to arrest him.
Museveni was also adept at establishing Uganda’s indispensable security credentials to Washington when he led the regional fightback against the Haraka al Shabaab al Mujahideen in Somalia, another lesson for Kenyatta in the current crisis. Kenya sent its own troops into Somalia in October 2011, calling the mission Linda Nchi (‘Defend the Nation’ in Kiswahili). That national imperative is now to the fore in Nairobi.
After the Westgate attacks, which Al Shabaab said it had launched against Kenya’s intervention in Somalia, Kenyatta spoke of Kenya as ‘a national family’. That fits perfectly with the posture of his defence at the ICC, where he and Ruto face charges of orchestrating post-election violence in 2007-08 that killed over 1,200 Kenyans and drove a third of a million people from their homes (AC Vol 54 No 15, Wobbling and nobbling & passim). The fact that most of those made homeless continue to struggle in makeshift camps and that no substantive charges have been brought in national courts against those responsible raises doubts about whether the government will respond judiciously to the Westgate attacks.
Since Kenyan troops went into Somalia, militia groups (not only Al Shabaab) have launched some 50 attacks in north-eastern Kenya, in the Dadaab and Hagadera refugee camps and in towns like Garissa, Mandera and Wajir. They have also launched grenade attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi. Yet with two or three fatalities in each attack, these were never enough to elicit more serious action from the security services. The attack on Westgate, with its elite Kenyan and foreign diplomatic clientele, is likely to prompt a fiercer response. But against whom?
Firstly, there were calls for the immediate closure of the Dadaab and Hagadera refugee camps and for the repatriation of all other Somali refugees. Over 400,000 Somali refugees live in tents in the Dadaab area, which was the target of armed attacks last week. Apart from the breaches of international law that the mass expulsion of refugees would entail (and some have been there for decades), it runs the risk of turning into an anti-Somali pogrom, deepening social fissures. There are important distinctions between Somali migrants and the Kenyan-Somali community. An intensified bludgeoning of Somali migrants would also alienate Kenyan-Somalis, who are a substantial and distinctive minority in Kenya. Historically, they also have a strong presence in the military and the police service.
Yet there are those among Kenyatta’s supporters, especially some proselytising evangelical Christians, who favour a general crackdown on Muslims. Other political activists, are in the majority in calling for a more constructive engagement – such as community policing and confidence building – that could produce better intelligence from communities where Somali migrants live. That requires a major turnaround, given the history of state mistreatment of some Muslim groups. Yet a campaign of harassment of Muslims in centres such as Eastleigh in Nairobi, along the coast and in the north-east, risks radicalising Kenyan Muslims, some of whom may build links with insurgents in the region.
There was an important show of national unity during and after the attack. Abdul Haji, a Kenyan Somali and the son of former Internal Security Minister Mohamed Yusuf Haji, emerged as a hero who raced to the mall to confront the attackers and rescue hostages, long before the police and army arrived. This was much celebrated among Kenyans on social media. It also pointed to the vibrancy of Kenya’s multiculturalism, especially among the younger smartphone-wielding and mall-shopping middle classes. Churches and mosques have organised inter-faith services for Christians and Muslims, attended by Kenyatta and Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, formerly a firebrand opposition activist.
Yet beyond that, historical tensions linger between Muslims and Christians over resources and mutual respect which successive governments have done little to address. Around 20% of Kenyans are Muslim, a similar number to the biggest and richest ethnic group, the Kikuyu. The Muslim community is generally much poorer and fragmented; each group has a distinctive relationship with the state.
Some Muslims in Coast Province argue for the right to self-determination as part of various secessionist movements, such as the Mombasa Republican Council. Their complaints are part of a broader set of frustrations common to many Coastal people that the area has received little government support since Independence (AC Vol 52 No 21, Kibaki gambles on regional war with Al Shabaab). The proportion of Muslims in Coast is much higher than in the rest of Kenya but the extent of Islamist influence there is a subject of debate. One certainty is that heavy state repression added to poor economic conditions will be heartily welcomed by the recruiters of Islamist insurgents (AC Vol 53 No 18, Mombasa murder).
Many opposition activists in the region claim that police and security label them as jihadis to win wider, often US and British, support for a crackdown. They argue that heavily armed insurgents with international links have been able to bribe their way out of detention while local dissidents languish in cells without funds for lawyers. There are also powerful commercial and landowning interests eyeing prime land along the coast who talk up the Islamist threat to justify widescale arrests and detention of local activists.
Kenyan Somalis in the north-east also have a fractious relationship with the Kenyan state. Secessionist conflict led to the Shifta Wars of the 1960s and the government’s response has been repressive ever since. Thousands of people are believed to have died at the hands of the security forces in a massacre at the airstrip at Wagalla in 1984. Even at the height of electoral activism in the 1990s and early 2000s, few groups would contemplate sending teams to monitor elections in North-Eastern Province, including the old Northern Frontier District.
Violent local politics and bouts of state repression combined with extreme poverty and unemployment have encouraged radicalisation in the area which borders southern Somalia. Add to that a cross-border traffic in arms and other contraband, and the free movement of itinerant Islamist proselytisers, and the prospects for more trouble are clear. It is into that environment that Nairobi politicians want to send the police and army to crack down on oppositionists and close two large refugee camps.
Somalis in the Eastleigh district of Nairobi – known as ‘Little Mogadishu’ – have a different complaints. Even before the intervention in Somalia, Kenyan security forces were accused of breaching human rights during stop-and-search operations organised, officials said, to identify and expel illegal immigrants. Following Westgate, security will focus on Eastleigh and the north, where there are already reports of growing tension. The prospect of clashes with security forces in the north-east and Eastleigh plays into Al Shabaab’s efforts to divide Kenyans.
As a home to Somali migrants facing increasing harassment, Eastleigh is a likely recruiting ground for Al Shabaab. The wealth of some Somali business people who own streets of shops, some like mini-shopping malls, represents an increasing commercial and political threat to Kenya’s elite. Some Somali shopkeepers claim that attacks on them and their property are sponsored by Kenyan businessmen, who pay the security forces to shut down Somali businesses. That is partly why some powerful figures in business and state security want a heavy-handed campaign in Eastleigh and beyond.
Such a strategy would be counter-productive. Most Kenyan Muslims were appalled by the attacks and the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims was quick to ‘condemn in the strongest terms the attack on peace-loving Kenyans’. Most Somalis in Eastleigh have little sympathy for Al Shabaab. Many fled to Kenya to escape the conflict in Somalia and have lost friends and family there. An early government target might be the money transfer outfits, like Barwaqo and Dahabshiil, that operate in Eastleigh and are suspected of being used by Al Shabaab and other militias.
Millions of dollars were reportedly looted from the Westgate mall during the siege, some, it is thought, by associates of the attackers and the rest by the police and military. Following the loss of both Kismayo and Mogadishu ports, Al Shabaab faces growing financial as well as military pressure in Somalia. That pressure could make Al Shabaab more determined to launch spectacular attacks. Until last year, it seemed that the group had refrained from launching a major attack in Kenya because of the risk that it would provoke a state crackdown on Somali businesses that, wittingly or unwittingly, help to finance the insurgents.
Then Al Shabaab was keen for many reasons not to alienate Somali businesses, especially those that had proved useful in the past. Now it seems that the Islamist militia, or at least the faction that had carried out the Westgate attack, has changed its calculations. From the messages Al Shabaab put out during and after the Westgate attacks, it is pushing a much stronger ‘pro-Islamic’ and national separatist line. It poses as a defender of Muslims (although it shot a Muslim woman for not wearing a hijab), an opponent of Christian oppressors and the defender of Somalis against Kenyan invaders.
Given the awkward relations between Kenyatta’s government and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s government in Mogadishu, the nationalist argument could resonate. Mohamud’s group dislikes Kenya’s influence over Kismayo port and its backing of the warlord Ahmed Mohamed Islaan ‘Madobe’, who controls trade there. Relations after Westgate are getting still tetchier. On 1 October, Kenyatta bluntly told a gathering of Kenyan Muslims and Christians: ‘If their [Mohamud’s government’s] desire is for Kenya to pull out of Somalia, my friends, all they need to do is what they should have done 20 years ago… which is to put their house in order.
’Much now depends on the parallel investigations into the Westgate attack: into the identities of the terrorists and their collaborators as well as the role of the military and security services in reacting to it and managing intelligence about the insurgents. Lists of suspects have been published online but these are not officially confirmed. There are reports that many of the attackers escaped from the mall via a sewerage pipe.
If officials confirm that the attackers were mainly foreigners, there will be pressure on the government to improve border security. If most of the group turns out to be from Kenya, officials may see that as a reason to increase pressure on Muslim groups in general, putting at risk the current campaign to build national unity after the Westgate tragedy.
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