Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home
Kenya: Al-Shabaab – Closer to Home
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election
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

Banners of Kenya's opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga, and Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto, also presidential candidate, are seen in Kericho, Kenya, July 30, 2022. REUTERS / Baz Ratner
Q&A / Africa

Countdown Begins to Kenya’s Transitional Election

Kenya’s highly anticipated vote featuring two political heavyweights, Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto, is likely to be closely fought. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Meron Elias outlines what is at stake.

What is happening?

Kenyans are due to vote on 9 August in a high-stakes election that has polarised the country’s political elite. The election pits Deputy President William Ruto, who will be trying for the top office for the first time, against Raila Odinga, the veteran head of the opposition Orange Democratic Movement. As deputy president, Ruto once seemed to be the heir apparent, but he has fallen out bitterly with President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is serving his second and last term. Instead, Kenyatta backs the candidacy of his own long-time rival Odinga, who has made four previous attempts to win the presidency.

Polls show a mixed picture in the contest between Ruto and Odinga. One closely watched polling firm, TIFA Research, found that Odinga has carved out a lead in recent weeks, with 49 per cent to Ruto’s 41 per cent. Another survey, by the Radio Africa Group, concluded that the race is a dead heat, placing Ruto at 45 per cent, one point ahead of Odinga.

Kenyan elections are almost invariably hard-fought, but the Odinga-Ruto showdown has been unusually unpredictable in part because deal-making among Kenyan elites has upended old alliances. Kenyatta, who clinched the presidency in 2013 and won re-election in 2017, was expected to endorse his deputy Ruto, who backed him in both those campaigns. Instead, Kenyatta forged a partnership with Odinga soon after the 2017 vote.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases.

The reshaped electoral chessboard means the outcome will probably come down to the degree to which Odinga and Ruto can muster support outside their respective bases. Ruto is strongly ahead in his Rift Valley backyard, while Odinga enjoys an unassailable lead in Nyanza, where he traces his roots. The picture is more complex in the vote-rich Mt. Kenya region, north of Nairobi, which has produced three of Kenya’s four post-independence presidents. There is no major candidate from the populous central highlands this time around. Ruto has shown surprising strength in this region, where Kenyatta has traditionally been dominant. The deputy president remains well ahead in polls, though without anything like the huge majority that Kenyatta won in 2017. Odinga, while trailing Ruto in the region, has raised his poll numbers to between 25 and 30 per cent, up from the single-digit figure he recorded in 2017. Odinga hopes that improvement in this region will make up for his losses to Ruto in his long-time strongholds in western Kenya and the coast. Ruto’s chances, meanwhile, rest on him scoring a convincing win in Mt. Kenya while eating into Odinga’s support in the western, coastal and northern parts of the country. Another key issue to watch will be whether two less prominent contenders, George Wajackoyah and David Mwaure, can peel enough votes away from the two main candidates to force a run-off.

What is at stake? 

Although the campaign has been largely peaceful, its tone has sharpened in the final weeks. Not just the two main candidates but also the outgoing president view the race in existential terms: they see winning as a matter of political and economic survival. Ruto, though now vastly wealthy, has parlayed his humble background into a campaign image as a “hustler”, an everyman who understands the needs of ordinary Kenyans, unlike Kenyatta and Odinga, the dynastic successors of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively. Ruto and his running mate Rigathi Gachagua have promised to tackle the “state capture” they say has occurred during the Kenyatta presidency, an implicit threat to investigate the Kenyatta family business empire’s ties with the state. But Ruto could face investigation himself, should Odinga prevail, into the source of his wealth (the political stakes, given his relative youth at 55, are arguably lower for him). Odinga, 77, will be making his fifth and likely final bid for the presidency. Portraying himself as a safe pair of hands who will unite the country, he has also vowed to root out corruption. He chose the respected anti-graft crusader Martha Karua, the first woman to run for deputy president on a major ticket in Kenyan history, as his running mate. In the eyes of his supporters, winning would reward him for his great personal sacrifices, including a long spell in detention in the 1980s, in the quest for a more democratic Kenya.

The two sides have traded ever more pointed barbs over the past few weeks. Attack billboards have sprung up and concocted accusations have flown on social media. Kenyatta and Ruto in particular have launched tirades against each other. On 31 July, government spokesperson Cyrus Oguna condemned politicians for stoking tensions and urged the two front-runners’ teams to dial down their rhetoric.

The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas.

Aside from the presidential election, Kenyans will also choose among thousands of candidates for national and county assembly member seats, representatives to the senate and county governorships. Contests for the latter post tend to be particularly pitched, considering the devolved powers and control of resources governors enjoy under Kenya’s constitution. In some places, the contests have already turned violent: in the northern county of Marsabit, the national government imposed a curfew following deadly clashes between local communities. The most severe drought in 40 years has sharpened communal hostilities in the hardest-hit areas, as Crisis Group reporting recently found. There have also been reports of attacks on women candidates on the campaign trail, despite the progress for gender representation indicated by Odinga’s nomination of Karua.

Although tensions may flare in some localities, the principal threat to stability lies in a disputed presidential outcome. Should the winner clinch the presidency by only a narrow margin, the declared loser may reject the result. Ideally, the aggrieved loser would turn to the courts, but if instead he calls supporters out into the streets they could clash with police. Communal violence might also ensue.

Are institutions prepared for the exercise?

The main questions about preparedness concern the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). This body, which runs the balloting and tabulates the votes, suffered a blow to its credibility after the 2017 presidential election when the Supreme Court annulled the results, citing the commission’s failure to conduct the vote in conformity with the constitution and electoral law. The IEBC has promised to learn from its mistakes, with Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it will ensure the election is transparent by offering agents of all parties’ access to vote tallies at polling stations.

Surveys show high public trust in the IEBC (TIFA’s poll found 74 per cent of respondents have either “a lot of” or “some” confidence), but a combination of state pressure and its own missteps has hobbled its preparations. First, parliament failed to approve the funding the commission requested to run the elections in time, delaying preparations including staff recruitment. Secondly, state-aligned media and senior officials have launched attacks on its credibility, casting doubt on its capacity to conduct the vote. Authorities on 21 July arrested foreign contractors who had come to Kenya at the commission’s invitation for supposed immigration violations. Critics view these moves as attempts by the state apparatus to intimidate the IEBC. For its part, the commission has a clumsy communications strategy, rarely informing the public about its internal workings in a proactive manner, drawing accusations from both major candidates’ camps that it is not acting with the requisite transparency.

Police have committed a number of electoral code violations.

Security forces are another key player. For most of the campaign, they have behaved with restraint. In the final weeks, however, police have committed a number of electoral code violations, including blocking Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza alliance members from reaching a number of campaign venues.

On the plus side, Kenya’s judiciary has built on the public trust it earned with its unexpected annulment of the 2017 vote, alongside a number of subsequent decisions barring an attempt by Kenyatta and Odinga to change the constitution. Defeated candidates may well turn to the Supreme Court again this time.

What should be done?

Kenyan elections matter well beyond Kenya. The country is East Africa’s main transport and commercial hub and a violent breakdown following polling could have reverberations in the neighbourhood. As Kenya is a democratic bellwether in the region, a smooth election could be a powerful example to fellow governments that peaceful politics has more to offer than the personalist authoritarianism that has become common in the region. It has also positioned itself as the site of potential peace talks to end the war in northern Ethiopia and already hosted talks among parties to the conflicts in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Both initiatives could run aground in case of a prolonged crisis. 

The 2022 election cycle has had many encouraging features, notably that social tensions have been strikingly low. Yet intense elite polarisation – and the likelihood that the losing candidate will reject the outcome, especially if the election is close – means that all actors need to take steps to prevent the election from veering into violence. In particular, authorities should permit public institutions, notably the IEBC, the space to administer the election without interference. They should stick by their pledge not to shut down or slow the internet, as doing so would impair the commission’s capacity to transmit results electronically to tallying centres. Security forces should maintain strict neutrality.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity.

The electoral commission should communicate the steps it is taking to ensure the vote’s integrity. Its chairman should hold press briefings to apprise the public of developments on election day and every subsequent day until it announces the final tallies. It should open its systems to scrutiny by political parties to reduce mutual suspicion. Electoral officials and other authorities should also ensure that party agents have full access to polling stations including – as the chairman pledged – during the vote count. Foreign and Kenyan observers should also be granted access. Odinga and Ruto should commit to turn to the judiciary rather than the streets if they are dissatisfied with the vote’s conduct or the outcome. Even at this late stage, a commitment by both not to act vengefully against each other – or against the outgoing president – upon taking the reins of power would help ratchet down tensions.

The Horn of Africa can scarcely afford another crisis with so much of the region in ferment. Kenyan authorities, the IEBC and other institutional leadership, the judiciary and the major candidates should all do their part to ensure a peaceful vote by acting with restraint – and fairness – as Kenyans go to the polls.