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Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home
Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Kenya Should Come Together After its Contested Elections
Kenya Should Come Together After its Contested Elections
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

Polling station officials count the ballots at a polling station in Archers Post, Samburu County, in Kenya on 8 August 2017. AFP/Cyril Villemain
Statement / Africa

Kenya Should Come Together After its Contested Elections

Contrary to the deadly election of 2007, Kenya’s pivotal and highly-anticipated 2017 national and local polls passed without major outbreaks of violence. But in order to build on this achievement, Kenyans must take further steps to overcome ethnic divisions and work toward greater national unity and inclusive governance.

Despite claims of irregularity and the continuing risk of unrest, Kenya’s pivotal national and local elections on 8 August passed off in a largely peaceful manner. Millions of voters braved the elements and long queues, turning out to elect their representatives in an orderly fashion and, in so doing, demonstrating faith in their democratic system. This is an achievement that now must be protected and fortified.

The vote in one of Africa’s major democracies was fraught with danger, as Crisis Group has documented. A history of election-related violence, ethnic divisions and high stakes made for a potentially explosive combination. The world was watching closely, sending more than 5,000 foreign observers, drawn from all major regional and international organisations. In the end, all of these missions, including the African Union, the East African Community, the Carter Center, the European Union (EU), the National Democratic Institute and the Commonwealth expressed confidence in the electoral process and praised it as broadly credible. The expensive electronic system designed to curb cheating, which many feared would not hold up, appears to largely have functioned well.

There have been some violent incidents and the situation could still take a more dangerous turn. Raila Odinga, the opposition leader, claims the vote-counting system was hacked and manipulated; the opposition released its own vote tallies claiming Odinga had won by a wide margin. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has denied these charges. On 11 August, the commission released final tallies according to which incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta secured a second term with 8.4 million votes (54.27 percent) against Odinga’s 6.7 million (44.7 percent).

Following Odinga’s statements claiming vote rigging, protests erupted in parts of Nairobi and the western town of Kisumu, resulting in five deaths. There are fears tensions could rise now that authorities have announced the final official results.

Political leaders from both sides need to demonstrate restraint and responsibility.

Political leaders from both sides need to demonstrate restraint and responsibility. In particular, Odinga should take any challenge of the outcome to the courts –not the streets. He should urge his supporters to remain calm and firmly denounce any violence against security forces. For his part, Uhuru Kenyatta should be magnanimous in victory, reach out to opposition supporters and fulfill his pledge to run an inclusive government in his second term. Security forces should avoid escalating the situation and display conflict-sensitive policing aimed at defusing tensions.

The people of Kenya displayed remarkable patience and enthusiasm on voting day. This was a welcome endorsement of democracy at a time of discernible regression in other parts of the continent. 

Yet this election is but one step on Kenya’s path to greater stability and democracy. Odinga’s rejection of the results, and the backing he received from his supporters, illustrates how deeply sceptical many Kenyans remain toward their public institutions. The electoral commission will need to build confidence in its systems, while ensuring that logistical and technical preparations as well as proper civic education take place well ahead of the next polls.

[T]he next government must address key drivers of electoral violence, especially the ethnic divisions that continue to bedevil Kenya and its politics.

More broadly, the next government must address key drivers of electoral violence, especially the ethnic divisions that continue to bedevil Kenya and its politics. As the EU observer mission noted, too many politicians relied on identity politics to rally support. Fearing ethnic clashes, many Kenyans fled from urban areas before the election. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, in a statement issued on the eve of the vote, called on Kenyans to “reject a politics of tribe and ethnicity, and embrace the extraordinary potential of an inclusive democracy”. That is wise counsel. The country’s civil society, its vibrant independent media in particular, should seek ways to promote political activism without resorting to ethnic solidarity. 

More should be done to promote gender equality as well.  For the first time in Kenya’s history, three women were elected to lead governorates created under the 2010 constitution. Several women also were elected to parliament. That is a noteworthy advance. But the Kenyan constitution requires that at least a third of parliament members be women; the results fall far short of that. The previous parliament failed to pass laws to implement this rule. The new one should make it a priority.

Threats remain and the road ahead is certain to be bumpy. It remains unclear how Odinga’s supporters will react to his rejection of the results; sustained protests are possible if he refuses to concede. Still, this was an important election that could have gone very wrong. That it did not, at least for now, is cause for satisfaction. Now, the task before the Kenyan people is to work together, try to forge greater national unity and heal the divisions that the electoral process has once more laid bare.