Pambazuka News

War on terror Kenya style

Abdul Ghelleh

2013-01-17, Issue 613

http://pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/85978

Besides the bitter political infighting, endemic culture of corruption and the ever-present fear of more tribal and political violence during the upcoming March 4 elections, Kenya’s war on terror has hurt many innocent people

Oil, diamonds, religious extremism and political violence. Despite her persistent and sometimes open violent conflicts, Africa is looking forward to a relatively peaceful and prosperous 2013. From Mozambique to Somalia, huge reserves of oil and gas have been found on and offshore along the east coast of Africa. Africa has never had it so good!

But as I write this piece in the first full working week of 2013, bitter election related violence – perhaps worse than the 2008 inter-tribal infighting, is predicted in Kenya during the campaign period or after the elections on March 4. And Somalia’s and Congo’s situations are as precarious as ever. The newly found oil wealth in South Sudan has not yet paid dividends. And President Bashir of Sudan is still a wanted man by the International Criminal Court.

And while solid and plural democracy took firm root in West Africa where Ghana held her fifth successful presidential and parliamentary elections in late 2012, becoming a beacon of hope for Africa and particularly West Africa, the Egyptian people are still on and off Tahriir Square as they yet have to show the way for the countries in the north of the Sahara. And Mali...oh my Mali: 2013 is going to be a ‘make or break’ year for its music loving inhabitants.

Five years on, is Kenya at the cross roads, again?

Looking back at 2012, the year was not a pleasant one for Kenyans and other non-indigenous African communities in Kenya. But particularly worst hit in 2012 are Somalis in Kenya. In November and December 2012, a number of hand-thrown grenades exploded in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, a predominantly Somali trading borough. Initial bombings were directed at a commuter bus, a church and a kiosk which sells soft drinks, airtime top-ups and other everyday consumer items. On November 21, a few days after three police officers were killed in Garissa, a predominantly Somali-Kenyan town in the north-east of Kenya which borders Somalia by suspected Al Shabaab militants, large numbers of police officers and what local witness sources described as a complete mechanised army brigade were sent into the town. Kenyan soldiers and the police beat and killed some residents. Following the incursions into Garissa, the undisciplined and poorly paid Kenya army and police went on the rampage, looting and burning local businesses. And in the second largest city in Kenya, Mombasa, a church was bombed, killing a little girl and wounding several adults.

As the Kenya general elections date draws nearer, fear and anxiety has gripped the expat community and Kenyans alike. In my preliminary assessment of the attacks, I thought that the Eastleigh and Mombasa bombings and the police slayings in Garissa were the work of the Shabaab terrorists in Somalia or an affiliated group inside Kenya. For the record, Kenya has a large and thriving Muslim community from every Kenyan tribe including Somalis. But without any supporting evidence, the ordinary people and the Kenya authorities quickly singled out the Somali refugees and the Shabaab for the first three bombing. In fact Somalis were suspected in all the subsequent bombings since no police evidence was ever produced by the security services.

Following the initial bombings, large numbers of Somalis - both Kenyan-Somalis and Somalis from Somalia, and other refugees from neighbouring states - were rounded up, more than six hundred of them in one night alone. Communal violence ensued for two consecutive nights in late December in Eastleigh, Nairobi, and a number of Somali-owned businesses were looted and torched.

After the bombings, instead of conducting intelligence-led investigations into the incidents or even pointing the finger at the obvious, the Shabaab, the Kenyan government publicly blamed Somali refugees for what was well coordinated and carefully planned terrorism related attacks.

Within a few days of the coordinated attacks, the Kenya government officials even went further by adopting a hastily made decision that ordered all refugees in the country to camps at Dadaab and other refugee centres around the country, an almost impractical and unworkable directive, even with the help of the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees.

And when the UN and other humanitarian organisations panicked and requested an urgent meeting with the Kenya government, three more weekly bombings – mainly Sundays - in a Mosque in Eastleigh, Nairobi took place. Was it a retaliatory action by Kenya Christians; or is it going to be an all out new religious war in Kenya? Initially, I thought so.

But wait a minute: an ethnic Somali local MP was badly injured in one of the Mosque attacks; and Kenya is less than two months away from hotly contested and tribally driven general elections. Was there a hand from a fifth column in what, from the outset, seemed to be religious violence? I went to Eastleigh to investigate. And during my visit there, I discovered that the MP, Yusuf Hassan, attends Friday prayers regularly at the Hidaya Mosque in Eastleigh where two of the three bombs were hurled. What was more intriguing is report by residents that a social club frequented by locals including some Kenya politicians is located close to the Mosque. And one long term resident in the area told me that at least one of the bombs (not the bomb that injured the MP) was thrown from within the grounds of this club.

Meanwhile, house-to-house searches of refugees, undocumented aliens and even Kenyan Somalis continued unabated. All the while, I wondered what the Kenya intelligence community were up to, as no one was so far arrested for the terrorist activities. An area the size of the Square Mile in the City of London where almost everyone knows everyone else would not have been that difficult to gather the intelligence required, hence identifying and apprehending the culprits quickly without the need for draconian, unworkable and panicky actions.

Hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eretria, Congo and Sudan who were paying their mortgages, rents and other bills were mistreated late at night while their children slept, and they were put on open-top trucks for undisclosed destinations across Nairobi, supposedly for onward transportation to refugee camps.

As the Kenya government does not have the capacity to plan and smoothly implement such a monumental task of expelling large and settled communities, its decision to unleash untrained police officers with militia tactics on highly traumatised minority residents was tantamount to a state sponsored daylight robbery.

One of my contacts who works for a money transfer company in Eastleigh telephoned me on Christmas Eve to say that he was busy that day lending out 3000 Kenya Shillings (about USD36.00) to relatives of those detained in order to give bribes to police officers for their release. Some of the detainees were reported to have paid as much as 10,000 KSH for their freedom. I was also told that in some instances, when a house was raided, one of the parents was left behind deliberately by the detaining officers for an unexplained reason, perhaps a signal for the parent remaining behind to bring the cash in for the family’s release later that night or the following morning. What a despicable act; can you differentiate between the Kenya police’s actions and Mogadishu’s Somali warlords of the 1990s? In fact this has all the hallmarks of a weakened government and it shows a perfect sign for a state that is about to fail.

To my surprise, I also discovered that some of the people who were rounded up by the Kenya police in the run up to the New Year have their own businesses in Nairobi and live in their own properties. Others live in rented villas that are paid for by their relatives in the diaspora, significantly contributing to the booming Kenya economy. A number of those detained were born in Kenya after their parents arrived from Somalia, Eretria and elsewhere in the region more than two decades ago. By Kenyan standards, nearly half of the refugees living in Nairobi and other large Kenya cities can be classified as middle class. In the 50 unit apartment building where I lived in December, for example, the occupancy rate was 97 per cent Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian households who send their children to expensive local private schools. And all of these families employ at least one Kenyan house servant and other staff. It defies logic to order these families to go and live in a refugee camp.

In comparison to the amateurish Kenya government decision-making processes, Uganda handles such cases with exceptional and commendable professionalism while upholding the rule of law to protect residents wherever they come from. When terrorists struck at a restaurant in Kampala in July 2010, for example, where many people were watching a world cup football match killing more than 70 people, no single extra police unit were sent to Kisenye, a mainly Somali village in the city. But less than seven days later, all the suspects - minus the bomber (s) - were in custody. How did they do it? Kenya government should know better.

Despite the bitter political infighting, the endemic culture of corruption and the ever-present fear of more tribal and political violence during the upcoming March 4 elections, Kenya has done well in lifting large sections of her population out of poverty. But a fundamental principle for better governance is to uphold the rule of law and not allow impunity to prevail over the law enforcement agencies.

And finally, Kenya should know that it’s not presently able to handout subsistence allowance to refugee communities living within her borders, but the state can implement the Geneva Convention for refugees properly or adhere to Africa’s tradition of community cohesion. Overlooking the security services’ mistreatment of neighbours in trouble, Kenya is further complicating her reconciliation and constitutional processes, thus creating the conditions for institutional disintegration, or perhaps worse.

And if the rule of law is allowed to be floated by senior civil servants and top police commanders as currently is the case, and the widespread corruption is tolerated, the deadline for the highly ambitious President Kibaki’s 2030 ‘middle income country’ status will not be met.

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* This article was first published by tolerance.ca