Back to the Trenches

After years of pursuing peace and stability, Kenya's political factions are returning to bare-knuckle politics.


On Sept. 3, Kenya’s opposition coalition announced that it will venture to the country’s coast to seek out signatures for a growing petition demanding a referendum to amend the country’s constitution. It’s not clear what the referendum will entail, exactly, but organizers promise it will cover everything from electoral and land reform, to instituting an inclusive political process, to improving security and fighting corruption. The petition already has over 1.4 million signatures, including those of former presidential candidates Martha Karua and Peter Kenneth. Just a year ago, Kenyans seemed resigned to the idea that no price was too high to pay for peace. Chastened by the 2007-08 post-election violence that left more than 1,300 people dead, the country was determined to do all it took to ensure a peaceful election. But if this referendum and the mounting opposition movement backing it are any indication, that consensus has since been broken.

The return to bare-knuckle politics — complete with open discussion of ethnic exclusion in government and emotionally charged mass rallies — has raised political temperatures to a level not seen since 2007. Having been locked out of key institutions of state (the ruling coalition controls both chambers of Parliament), the Kenyan opposition is struggling to stay relevant. This has forced it to adopt extra-institutional tactics such as mass action and calls for popular sovereignty through the referendum. Though Kenya’s security problems started before the current administration came to power, increased violence and new acts of terrorism have invigorated the opposition. It claims that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government, in addition to blocking out community voices and abetting corruption, has failed to secure the country against aggression from al-Shabab.

All this is happening at a time when the government is hemorrhaging political capital fast due to high levels of insecurity, corruption, and accusations of ethnic favoritism. So far, Kenyatta’s administration has reacted with restraint to the opposition’s rallies. Threats to ban them through the Inspector General of Police have not materialized (largely due to their legal dubiousness), although it is widely rumored that the government leaned on the country’s media outlets not to give live coverage to the opposition’s rally on July 7, a date that has significant political symbolism for Kenyans. It was on July 7, 1990, that opposition leaders symbolically kicked off mass rallies to demand for a return of multiparty politics in the country. It is the spirit of this movement that Kenya’s opposition hopes to capture in its latest calls for mass action.

On May 31, 2014, Kenya’s de facto opposition leader Raila Odinga returned from the United States to a raucous welcome at a rally in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. At the rather chaotic rally, Odinga excoriated Kenyatta’s government for having failed in its first year in office, and promised to spearhead "consultative rallies" across the country aimed at forcing the government to the negotiating table to discuss issues affecting Kenyans. These issues include rising insecurity, the high cost of living, youth unemployment, corruption, and ethnic exclusion in the public service that favored co-ethnics of the president and his deputy. In many ways, Odinga’s homecoming rally marked the official end of the tepid acceptance of "peace at all costs" narrative. But more was to come.

At around 11 p.m. on Friday, July 5, a group of gunmen attacked a village and a police station in Lamu County, leaving at least 22 dead. Less than a month earlier, on June 15, almost 50 gunmen drove into the Kenyan Coastal town of Mpeketoni less than 40 miles from the Somalia border. The attack left more than 60 dead. These attacks heralded a new chapter in the saga that is insecurity in Kenya. Previously, such attacks and kidnappings were associated with the Somali terror group al-Shabab and had no discernible domestic political ends besides trying to force Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. The recent Lamu attacks were different in that, even though they were claimed by al-Shabab, evidence suggests that they are also tied to local grievances over land ownership. (The photo above shows locals barricading a road to protest rising insecurity after the Mpeketoni attack.)

Following the Mpeketoni attack the government of Kenya, led by the president and the cabinet minister in charge of security, were quick to pin the Mpeketoni attack on the leading opposition alliance, the Coalition for Reforms and Democracy (CORD). The cabinet secretary in charge of internal security, Joseph Ole Lenku, charged that opposition leaders were inciting Kenyans to violence. This charge was echoed by the Majority Leader in the National Assembly, Aden Duale. He and others suggested that the attackers had singled out members of the president’s ethnic group, although members of other ethnic groups were also killed. Later, the police arrested Lamu Governor Issa Timamy, a member of the party United Democratic Forum, on charges of incitement to violence and murder; he was later released on bond.

At first, it was unclear who had directed the attackers, but later attacks in Hindi and Gamba gave more insight into their motives. Moments after the attack Mpeketoni attack, al-Shabab sources in Somalia claimed responsibility. But it later emerged that the proscribed secessionist group, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), might have been behind the attacks. More proximately, the attacks are likely to have been motivated by grievances over land allocation in Lamu County.

Grievances over land along the coast are as old as the geographic entity known as Kenya. In 1902 the Crown Land Ordinance alienated all "unoccupied" land. The result was that various coastal communities were robbed of their ancestral lands. The Land Titles Ordinance of 1908 added insult to injury by legitimating land acquisitions by settlers — Arabs, Indians and Europeans — at the expense of the indigenous African communities. The indigenous community’s communal claims to land were simply incompatible with the individualized ownership of commoditized land. Government records indicate that by 1978 there were about 130,000 known landless people along the coastal strip.

After independence in 1963, the government embarked upon resettlement of squatters on the land annexed by the Kenyan colonial state (and now owned by the government of Kenya). Many of these squatters were from Central Kenya and spoke Kikuyu. This is precisely the source of "historical injustice" that locals have campaigned against in Lamu and other parts of Kenya’s coastal strip. The land question contributes to a general sense of marginalization on the Coast among those who consider themselves indigenous to the region; it is this sense of alienation that spawned the MRC, whose slogan defiantly proclaims that "Pwani si Kenya" (The Coast is not a part of Kenya). Although most reports on the land-related attacks have focused on their potential al-Shabab connection, the attacks are not unique to Kenya. Similar clashes have been occurring, with increasing frequency, in the North Eastern and upper Rift Valley regions.

As the attacks become more and more frequent, the sense of insecurity in Kenya has started to have tangible effects. The tourism industry along the coast is on its deathbed after the al-Shabab kidnappings and attacks scared away tourists and caused furloughs. The security situation has acquired a decidedly political angle, with the possibility that these local groups — including the MRC — are linked with al-Shabab. With every new attack Kenyans are getting more and more impatient with the government’s proven inability to either prevent or react in a timely manner to the wanton murder of innocent citizens. It took the government more than five hours to react to the Mpeketoni attack. It later emerged that local security officials actually had intelligence on an impending attack but did nothing. The government reacted to all this by transferring a few police officers and indicting some low level officials. After the Westgate attack on September 21, 2013, the president appeared willing to protect his security chiefs rather than to reform the country’s struggling security establishment — and it looks like his priorities haven’t changed.

The president seems willing to incur incredibly high political costs, including within his political base, in order to protect his security chiefs. Why is the government unwilling to take the fight against insecurity seriously? How will the presently heightened political temperatures interact with the high levels of insecurity?

To be sure, the CORD alliance is not content to let the political instability and countrywide insecurity persist. Since the collapse of the deadline for a national dialogue with the government on July 7, the opposition alliance continues to push for a raft of reforms through a constitutional amendment that, according to them, will address insecurity, rising cost of living, corruption, ethnic exclusion, among other issues. In response, the government has tried — and failed — to blame the opposition for some of the violent stirrings, as seen after the Mpeketoni attack. Outnumbered in parliament, opposition prefers to use people power to pressure the government.

For now, it is fair to say that Kenya’s president and his government will be hard pressed to maintain control in the face of these dual challenges: rising insecurity and a restive opposition. The country has now reverted to the same levels of ethnic fear mongering that preceded the 2007-08 ethnic clashes. That is truly worrying.

Ken Opalo is an assistant professor at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. Twitter: @kopalo

Ngala Chome is a Commonwealth Shared Scholar at the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh for the year 2013-2014.