It’s precisely a year to the day since the Jubilee alliance took control of Kenya’s government under a cloud of controversy over a flawed election and uncertainty about how the world would respond to a government led by suspected war criminals. At the time, the President, Uhuru Kenyatta, and Vice President William Ruto were awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court and western governments warned of “consequences” for Kenya if it elected the two leaders suspected of inciting the previous poll violence in 2007 and claimed to be preparing for a diplomatic relationship limited to “essential contacts”. A year on, the front page of last weekend’s leading newspaper, The Nation carried a photo of a smiling Kenyatta relaxing in State House receiving the envoys of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia in a joint visit to pledge moral and material support for Kenya’s war on terrorism. What a turnaround.
It’s been a good year for Kenyatta and Ruto. In part the change in their fortunes is due to the natural hypocrisy of high-handed western governments whose foreign policy is always subordinate to interests rather than values. But in large part their luck has been self-made. Witnesses in the case before the International Criminal Court have withdrawn at a rapid rate causing the prosecutor to cry foul and to ask for more time. And although the Kenyan government fell short of its goal to get the cases dismissed, Kenyatta’s case has been postponed several times, now until October 2014. It has pursued the defence of its leaders with such vigour that the coalition has come to be seen by many Kenyans as a one-issue government.
This week, however, on the anniversary of their accession to power, the Jubilee alliance seems to have found another raison d’íªtre: terrorism. The response to the Westgate attack last September was bungled and embarrassing. The main thrust of policy following the attack was to hound the media that exposed the truth of the cock-ups, looting and friendly fire and to scapegoat Kenya’s large ethnic Somali community as well as Somali refugees – the difficulty of distinguishing the two appearing to be of little concern to the police that conducted round-ups in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi.
But now, six months after the attacks and one year into their tenure, a strategy is beginning to emerge. In response to a recent spate of violent attacks, (six people killed in a church shooting in Mombasa, 3 grenade attacks in Eastleigh in Nairobi killing another 6 and two further grenade attacks in the Dadaab refugee camp), the government appears to have found its feet and is responding with force. The police have been issued with shoot-to-kill orders, 4000 people have been arrested in Mombasa and Nairobi. All urban refugees have been ordered to return to the northern refugee camps of Kakuma and Dadaab. And police are going house to house in Muslim and Somali neighbourhoods in the main towns doing what they do so well: beating, looting and ransoming people without proper ID cards, or, in many cases, even those with proper papers. The newspapers are awash with vitriol against Somalis and ethnic Somali MPs who have made public statements questioning the utility and manner of the crackdown have been branded traitors.
The violence that preceded this enormous response was, by Kenyan standards, normal. Similar attacks of lesser scale have taken place since Kenya invaded Somalia purportedly in pursuit of al-Shabaab in October 2011. The killing of two of the church suspects by police five days after the original attack and the execution, on April 1 of the controversial cleric, Abubakar Sharrif, better known as “Makaburi” (‘graveyard’ – in Swahili) were also not unprecedented.
Painstaking work is not one of the Kenyan police’s strong suits. Makaburi was the fifth outspoken cleric to be assassinated in murky circumstances since 2012. A report by the Kenyan pressure group, Muslims for Human Rights and the Open Society Justice Initiative, released earlier in the month, pointed the finger for a range of killings and disappearances firmly at the state. The report’s eerie title, a quote from a police officer, said it all: “We are tired of taking you to court.” What is new though is the defiant tone and language of the government in justifying its potentially illegal actions (even going so far as to appear to claim the right to have killed Makaburi, even as it disavows doing so).
On the eve of the government’s one-year anniversary, the Inspector General of Police, Kimaiyo, issued a legally questionable directive to shoot-to-kill, telling officers: “you are justified to use your firearm effectively. You have no control over where the bullet will hit. It can hit the head or heart even when your aim is to disable.”
The week before, the day after the church shooting, the Cabinet Secretary for the Interior ignored a High Court ruling that had quashed an earlier attempt to relocate refugees to camps and announced that all urban refugees should relocate forthwith or be forced to do so. The attempt to cleanse the cities of nomads had a kind of Biblical resonance, but nothing at all to do with the crimes at hand. In Dadaab, where I was on the day of the order, no one believed that the urban refugees would actually arrive. But this week, people had begun to trickle in, scared by the actions of the government, by the state-sponsored terror in Eastleigh and the high prices being charged by police for ransoming relatives from custody. Its worth remembering that the Kenyan police call Somalis in Nairobi “ATM machines”.
The fact that this heavy-handed collective punishment and blatant discrimination is counter-productive is surely known to the intelligent people in the Kenyan government. The police and security apparatus in Dadaab and along the border with Somalia have spent the last three years building relations with the refugees and pursuing a community policing strategy in a (largely successful) bid to improve security in the camps. But, in Nairobi, either old habits die hard or else something else is at play.
Nearly everyone I have spoken to in Kenya during the last two turbulent weeks (and 99% of Muslims and Somalis) acknowledges that the main beneficiaries from the violence have been the politicians at the top of government. Not only in terms of the re-booting of Western policy towards the regime, but also in terms of the overshadowing of the latent tensions within the government (it is an uneasy coalition at best), and of uniting a sceptical Kenyan polity behind an administration that has made zero progress on combating corruption, reforming the police or on improving basic standards of living. The insecurity also holds another, more sinister silver lining for the Uhu-Ruto government: the foregrounding of an attack on human rights and the hard-won constitutional protections of Kenya’s infant constitution, ratified in 2010.
The shoot-to-kill police force has now been normalised. “We should expect it to become a permanent fixture,” one civil society activist told me recently (afraid to be quoted by name). He thought that Kenyatta had his eyes not on the next election, he could count on that, but on the clauses in the constitution that impose Presidential term limits.
Writing in The Nation on Tuesday April 8, Eric Ng’eno, the director of messaging in the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit, posed the question, “Should we observe the rights of all suspects, including violent jihadists, and ignore the threat they pose to the public?” In an article in which he distanced the state from the killing of Makaburi, he concluded with a call that revealed perhaps more than he might have intended: “The whole picture is larger and more complex than bailing terror suspects, then moaning about extrajudicial executions.”
Such an analysis makes it easy to see why many refugees hold it as a fact that each childishly targeted grenade is the work of people paid by the state. It should come as no surprise that many more are coming to similar conclusions. Kenya’s war on terror is likely to be a long one.
Ben Rawlence is an Open Society Foundation fellow and the author of “Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War” (Oneworld, 2013)