Kenya on the Brink

Somali terrorists, tribal divisions, and political opportunists are conspiring to put the east African nation in a dangerous spot.

Christena Dowsett/Getty Images
Christena Dowsett/Getty Images

NAIROBI, Kenya — On a chilly Saturday 24 years ago, political leaders angered by the dictatorial rule of Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi led 6,000 protestors to a rally at a dusty sports field north of Nairobi’s city center. Speaker after speaker demanded political reforms, democracy, and transparent government, driving the crowd into a frenzy. Then security forces moved in and pushed people back with batons and tear gas. Riots followed, first across Nairobi and then nationwide. After a four-day crackdown, 20 people were dead and most of the opposition leaders were under arrest.

That day, July 7, 1990, became known as Saba Saba — "seven seven" in Kiswahili. In Kenya, it is still synonymous with violent suppression of popular protest against political despotism. This year, Saba Saba and all of its connotations are on Kenyans’ lips again. Opposition leaders once more called their supporters to a rally this July 7 in central Nairobi, where grievances ranging from soaring costs of living to rising insecurity were vented under the watchful eye of 15,000 armed police summoned to keep the peace. Fears the rally would turn into a riot were so deep that people fled flashpoint towns, diplomatic staff and private sector workers were encouraged to work from home, and shops stayed shuttered.

In a democracy like Kenya there should be room for protests and dissent. But six years after post-election violence here killed 1,200 Kenyans, the country is once again girding itself for violence as dangerous political divisions in what is supposed to be East Africa’s most stable country are widening again. A recent spate of terror attacks is only fueling the political fire. In a country where partisan affiliations are driven by tribe, political conflict pushed by self-serving politicians could result in deadly ethnic conflict. While the July 7 rally passed peacefully, hostility between supporters of rival leaders remains high. 

Mistrust between two groups stretches back to the birth of independent Kenya in 1963. On the one side are President Uhuru Kenyatta’s supporters, drawn from his Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest ethnic group and the most politically and economically powerful. On the other, the Luo, a tribe from the country’s west, are massed behind Raila Odinga, one of the original Saba Saba firebrands and now leader of the opposition Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). The Luo complain that they and other tribes have been marginalized since the Kikuyu took power in the 1960s. Luo leaders have since played second fiddle to presidents from other tribes, never quite reaching the top spot. The ill-feeling between the Kikuyu and the Luo, with allied tribes, erupted into violence following the 2007 elections.

The worry was that Monday’s Saba Saba rally could have sparked the fire again, that politically-driven scuffles could swiftly morph into deadly intertribal attacks. Church leaders, business groups, foreign envoys, and newspaper columnists called for calm. Kenya can ill afford to stumble into unrest. If the situation really explodes the biggest beneficiary would be al-Shabab, the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate.

Kenyatta’s 15-month-old administration faces criticism over its handling of myriad internal and external crises. The most egregious, many Kenyans say, is the inadequate response to a burgeoning threat from terrorism. In September 2013, 71 people died when al-Shabab militants attacked the Westgate mall. But violence has picked up recently. On May 16, 10 people were killed in blasts at a Nairobi market. Seven people died two weeks before that in explosions on buses in Mombasa and Nairobi. Iin June and the first week of July alone, more than 100 people died in five attacks on three towns along Kenya’s coast. At least 29 died in two assaults against Hindi and Gamba, two towns on Kenya’s northern coastline on July 5. Similar raids killed 69 people over eight days in June in and around Mpeketoni town, in Kenya’s coastal northeast close to the Lamu archipelago. In Mpeketoni, Hindi and Gamba, non-Muslims were singled out and executed. Businesses including hotels, banks, and gas stations were torched. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for all these attacks, and says they will halt their offensives only when Kenyan troops leave the African Union force fighting Islamists in Somalia.

Kenyatta, however, has insisted the gunmen were not Islamist terrorists, but local political networks opposed to his government.

Many analysts — and average Kenyans — say that intertribal clashes and political violence would be a deadly distraction for a government that should be focused on stopping al Qaeda’s east African proxy. But the political elite in Nairobi may not have their priorities in line with what is best for the country.

"First; that there is simply no genuine political will to respond to the increasing insecurity threats," wrote Peter Aling’o of the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, in a recent op-ed. "And secondly; that insecurity has become a tool for political manipulation by the government, state security agencies and opposition groups." 

This politicking was most obviously on display when Kenyatta went on live television on June 17, two days after the Mpeketoni raids — which al-Shabab had already claimed as their own. The attack, Kenyatta said, was the work of "local political networks," not the Islamists. Regional police made similar pronouncements after the Hindi and Gamba assaults on July 5.

In the president’s interpretation, the attack on Mpeketoni, a Kikuyu enclave, was aimed at terrorizing his tribesmen to leave the coastal region where the indigenous tribes, allies of the Luo, claim they were given land illegally. Those coastal groups largely side with Odinga’s party. To many Kikuyus, Odinga is hell-bent on igniting an ethnic war so that he can get into power either in some sort of national unity government, or simply through a revolution that overthrows Kenyatta. Mpeketoni was the first salvo of that war, they say. (Odinga has denied this).

The blame game over Mpeketoni brought otherwise latent anger between each side of Kenya’s political-ethnic divide into the open. Following Kenyatta’s television address, comments on Kenyan media websites erupted into bald stereotyping of tribe and ethnicity. Facebook and Twitter feeds took dark turns. Threat and counter-threat flowed. A leaflet circulated in some areas demanding all Luo leave within seven days.

"The potential for violence is very much present," says Gladwell Otieno, head of the Africa Centre for Open Governance and a former chair of Transparency International Kenya. "The ethnic rivalry and hostility card feeds into Kenyatta’s narrative and keeps his base heated up and supporting him. But it’s a very dangerous game to play. At what point do things spill into violence that probably cannot then be controlled?" 

There is little evidence that political militias have been readied for mass violence as they were around the 2007 elections. But sporadic violence could persist over months, spreading security forces thinly when they should be focused on tackling al-Shabab. Ethnic divisions would become even more deeply entrenched. Rumbling domestic political violence, with further Islamist terror attacks, could chill the confidence of foreign investors, who have so far largely ignored rising insecurity. Tourism, which drives 10 percent of Kenya’s economy, is struggling, with visitor numbers down 12 percent following the Westgate attack and hoteliers reporting mass cancellations as terror strikes increased in 2014. A shaky economy and high unemployment are fertile ground for political agitators and radicalizing imams alike. Al-Shabab could find its ranks swelled, and will certainly celebrate the Kenyan government’s insistence that the country’s greatest threat is not global terror, but political enemies within.

Whether violent skirmishes break out or not, Kenya is again starkly divided, at a time when it needs unity to cope with the difficulties it faces. Without that solidarity, the only ones who benefit are al-Shabab and, arguably, Kenya’s political elite. Strange bedfellows indeed.

<p> Mike Pflanz is a British journalist based in Kenya who has reported from East Africa for international media since 2004. </p>