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Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home
Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence
Briefing 102 / Africa

Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home

One year after the Westgate attack, Al-Shabaab has become more entrenched and active in Kenya. Meanwhile, the country’s immediate post-Westgate unity has broken down in the face of increasing attacks, and the political elites, security services, and ethnic and faith communities are beset by mutual suspicion and recriminations.

I. Overview

One year after the Westgate Mall terrorist attack in Nairobi, Al-Shabaab is more entrenched and a graver threat to Kenya. But the deeper danger is less in the long established terrorist cells that perpetrated the act – horrific as it was – and more in managing and healing the rising communal tensions and historic divides that Al-Shabaab violence has deliberately agitated, most recently in Lamu county. To prevent extremists from further articulating local grievances with global jihad, the Kenyan government – including county governments most affected – opposition politicians and Kenyan Muslim leaders, must work together to address historical grievances of marginalisation among Muslim communities in Nairobi, the coast and the north east, and institutional discrimination at a national level, as well as ensuring that counter-terrorism operations are better targeted at the perpetrators and do not persecute wider ethnic and faith communities they have purposefully infiltrated.

The present context is serving only to lose further hearts and minds. Instead of closing ranks as they managed – just – in the aftermath of Westgate, Kenya’s political elites have bought into the deadly discourse of ethnic and religious recriminations. Not only are there plenty of immediate grievances to exploit, but nearly two decades of radicalisation and recruitment in Kenya means that the threat is both imminent and deep. The absence of a common Kenyan Muslim agenda and leadership has meant little resistance to the extremist message.

The late 2011 military intervention in Somalia to create a buffer against a spill­over of insecurity has hastened the expansion of Al-Shabaab’s campaigns into the homeland. The intervention’s strategic calculations in relation to (southern) Somalia may, in the long run, be vindicated. But the impact on domestic security has been severely underestimated, or at least the ability of internal security agencies to disrupt and respond to terrorist attacks without, as the April 2014 Usalama Watch operation did, further alienating communities whose cooperation and support is vital in the fight against terrorism. Yet the blame should lie less in the weaknesses of the country’s institutions than in the unwillingness of political leaders to put aside partisan divisions. And because partisan divisions almost inevitably translate into communal strife, playing politics with terrorism compounds an already volatile situation.

While the successful drone attack against the Al-Shabaab Emir Ahmed Abdi Godane on 1 September has removed the organisation’s key strategist, not least in extending the jihad beyond Somalia, the inevitable jockeying for position within Al-Shabaab will have implications for Kenyan operatives as they seek to maintain their relevance with the new leadership. A further offensive by the Somalia government and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), squeezing Al-Shabaab’s territorial presence in south-central Somalia, also risks high-impact attacks elsewhere – including in Kenya – as a demonstration of the insurgents’ continued potency.

This briefing updates and builds upon previous Crisis Group analysis and recommendations especially in Kenyan Somali Islamist Radicalisation (25 January 2012). The briefing also refers to the transition to devolved government and how longstanding issues relating to the provision of security, regional marginalisation and accommodating minority representation are yet to be fully addressed; these will be explored in a forthcoming series of products on devolution in Kenya.

To prevent a further deterioration of security and deny Al-Shabaab an ever greater foothold, the Kenyan government, opposition parties and Muslim leadership should:

  • clearly acknowledge the distinct Al-Shabaab threat inside Kenya without conflating it with political opposition, other outlawed organisations or specific communities;
     
  • put further efforts into implementing and supporting the new county government structures and agencies, to start addressing local grassroots issues of socio-economic marginalisation;
     
  • carefully consider the impact of official operations such as Operation Usalama Watch, and paramilitary operations of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) when they appear to target whole communities, and allow for transparent investigations and redress where operations are found to have exceeded rule of law/constitutional rights and safeguards;
     
  • implement the recommendations of the 2008 (“Sharawe”) Presidential Special Action Committee (finally tabled with the 2013 Truth, Justice and Reconciliation report) to address institutional discrimination against Muslims (eg, issuance of identity cards and passports) and better (proportional) representation of Muslims in senior public service appointments; and
     
  • facilitate Muslim-driven madrasa and mosque reforms, which should entail review and approval of the curriculum taught; mosques vetting committees need to be strengthened in areas where they exist and put in place where they are absent.

Nairobi/Brussels, 25 September 2014

A Turkana woman walks past a road construction project near Isiolo town, about 320 km (200 miles) north from the capital Nairobi, on 7 July 2008. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna
Commentary / Africa

Kenya: Development, County Governments and the Risk of 2017 Election Violence

ISIOLO, Kenya. Until a decade ago, few ventured beyond Isiolo without armed police escort. A dusty frontier garrison town in central Kenya, it was the gateway into the badlands of Kenya’s former Northern Frontier District.

In the last two decades, as Kenya’s economy and politics have liberalised, Isiolo has transformed into a vibrant commercial hub owing much to its strategic location. It straddles the recently upgraded (paved) Pan-Africa highway that links the Horn (especially Ethiopia’s huge and relatively untapped markets) to central Kenya and beyond to Central and Southern Africa.

Isiolo is also an important node of Kenya’s LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia) planned infrastructure project. This seeks to develop a new “northern” transport corridor between Kenya and Uganda and to better integrate Ethiopia and South Sudan into East Africa, and will include a new port being built near Lamu, oil pipelines and a refinery.

LAPSETT’s prospects have declined with the global price of oil, the rising terrorist threat in the North East, South Sudan’s civil war, and with Uganda now looking at an alternative pipeline route via Tanzania. Isiolo, however, will continue to play a central role in Kenya’s ambition to exploit its vast northern rangelands. 6,500 acres have been set aside for a new “Isiolo Resort City”, construction for a large dam on the Ewaso Nyiro River to serve it is already underway; a new airport, and a modern abattoir to process 400 cattle daily from the region’s large livestock population are also planned.

Yet Isiolo is one of a number of 47 new counties that face risks of conflict ahead of and during the 2017 polls. Not only has the national problem of an ethnic winner-takes-all politics devolved to the counties’ internal electoral competition, but local actors are making exclusive claims over potentially lucrative resources and infrastructure that fall in their boundaries, increasing conflict over internal administrative borders – which are often badly demarcated and therefore disputed. While these conflicts are found throughout Kenya, they have particularly affected counties in the pastoral areas of northern and southern Kenya, including the Rift Valley.

Devolving authority to county government in 2013 was one of the principal innovations of the 2010 constitution.

Devolving authority to county government in 2013 was one of the principal innovations of the 2010 constitution, and a response to the 2007-2008 post-election violence. The goal was to enhance local communities’ participation in development with the expectation that it would reduce competition over national resources, which had often taken on ethnic overtones and fuelled violence, especially at election time. It was also hoped county government would enable marginalised regions to catch up with the more developed areas, again addressing and reducing historic regional grievances.

Undoubtedly there has been a surge in county-based development especially in infrastructure, but these gains (and devolved funds that finance them) are connected to a rise in localised conflicts and insecurity in three aspects:

  • The heightened stakes of county power, controlled by the governor and other elected officers, have often reproduced national ethnic competition at county level.
     
  • The creation of new minorities within counties including in urban settings is generating new tensions, particularly where their economic activities are now seen as outsider competition by the new county elites.
     
  • Inter-county competition is growing over the ownership and control of big national or regional development projects where they traverse county boundaries, making these borders prone to violent dispute and rendering residents belonging to minorities from rival counties vulnerable to reprisals.

While Isiolo’s potential should bring development dividends – 63 per cent of its population live below the poverty line – its prospects are already blighted by a sharp rise in communal conflict. This is partly because control of national-regional development projects is contested by the new county elite as exclusively “theirs”.

The Isiolo county population (estimated at over 150,000) is diverse. Most are herders from tribes like the Boran, Somali, Samburu and Turkana in the northern “rangelands” (desert in the eyes of many), but a minority are farmers, because the county straddles the line of “sown” lands of the central highlands, settled by Meru agriculturalists and traders.

While this crossroads of livelihoods brings exchange and a dynamic local economy, it has also driven conflict: in the 1990s most of the ethnic violence was between the Boran and Somali, but since then ethnic conflict has diversified and evolved. In late October 2015 deadly clashes pitted Somali, Boran and Samburu herders against Meru farmers along the disputed county border resulting in six deaths. A few days later, riots erupted in Isiolo town following the death of a Meru boda boda (motorbike-taxi) operator; Boran, Somali and Turkana then looted Meru shops and blocked the Isiolo-Nanyuki highway; the situation was only brought under control by the deployment of soldiers from the 78th Tank Battalion, based in the town’s outskirts.

The Isiolo-Meru tension is just one example of inter-county disputes that now affect more than half the counties.

Because of the way Kenya’s new counties were often hastily drawn up (some see deliberate ethnic “gerrymandering”), formerly cosmopolitan regional capitals have become administrative centres for smaller counties dominated by one or two ethnic groups, and smaller communities neighbouring counties or further afield living in these cities have become “minorities”. In Isiolo’s case, Meru communities are now a minority, dominant in trade and in some urban wards, but frozen out of the big county executive seats, like those for the governor, senators and members of the national assembly. They are caught up in the increasingly bitter and violent conflict over the poorly-defined border between Isiolo and Meru counties.

The Isiolo-Meru tension is just one example of inter-county disputes that now affect more than half the counties, with growing calls for a new county border demarcation exercise. The Commission on Administrative Justice (a statutory body to address administrative and governance disputes) has called for the creation of a County Boundaries Commission, with a mandate to conduct a new survey and clearly mark out borders with visible markers. However, any new commissions or actions are unlikely to have an impact on contested boundaries before the 2017 elections.

Inaction is not an option since contested boundaries and the ethnic interests competing over them will aggravate hotly disputed county elections in 2017. The counties and the national government need to consider a sequence of high-impact policy interventions to mitigate the risk of county-based conflict, now and in the run-up to 2017. These could include:

  • a moratorium on all land sales in disputed country border areas, pending the outcome of a credible adjudication of contested lands and county border demarcation (properly marked with high-visibility markers);
     
  • a clear national government policy statement that borders will be reviewed after the 2017 polls by an independent technical commission and its decisions will be final and binding;
     
  • the creation of a new “County Inclusion Index” by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission to identify counties that are failing to meet the constitutional requirements of inclusive government (the commission is already doing this but on an ad hoc basis);
     
  • new high-level inter-county talks, involving elected officials and a broad cross-section of credible civil society leaders, to ease tensions and create sustained peacebuilding and reconciliation.

Contributors

Researcher, Horn of Africa
a_abdille
Project Director, Horn of Africa
RAbdiCG