I am writing this article the morning after 50 raiders mowed down 60 innocent civilians in the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni. Coming in the wake of a year of an unprecedented number of attacks outside Northern Kenya, the latest attack is the most confusing so far.
In the lead-up to the attack, there were reports that Western governments had intelligence of a looming large-scale attack somewhere on the Kenyan coast. Britain promptly chartered planes to fly its citizens to safety and then nothing happened. For two weeks, Kenya shuttled between the return of its opposition leader and other non-issues, including jabs at the West for planning to scuttle the Kenyan tourism sector. Then it happened; attackers lay waste to 60 lives using high calibre weapons in a siege that lasted over 4 hours. The obvious culprit, everyone assumed, was the Al Shabaab, the current faceless villain that has taken over blame for all attacks that include guns and explosives.
True, the terror organisation has claimed responsibility for major attacks in Nairobi and other parts of Kenya. During the biggest and the most daring so far, the Westgate siege, the terrorists had a complete communications unit that made more than five new Twitter accounts within the four days of the siege. However, it would be foolhardy to assume that all the attacks have been caused by these terrorists. Kenya is teeming with many local and foreign terrorists not linked to Al Shabaab and yet thriving under the latter’s infamy. All these are coming out of the woodwork now, knowing too well that while the nation is focused on battling the Al Shabaab, they can do pretty much what they want and get away with it.
The Kenyan coast has a history of sieges and attacks, as well as calls for secession going as far back as the decades before independence. The tensions simmered in 1997 when politicians took advantage of the tribal dynamics to cobble together the infamous Kaya Bombo raiders. The 300 raiders ran amok in the towns at the coast for a whole year and had one of the most impressive military structures and organisation ever done within Kenya’s borders. When their marauding stint eventually came to an end, its former members dispersed, forming new militia groups and agitation groups. Some fizzled out with time and natural attrition while others morphed into political groupings.
The end of those raids coincided with the first terrorist attacks on Kenyan soil, the August 1998 bombings in Nairobi. A bigger villain had reared its head, making groups such as the Kaya Bombo irrelevant at the national level. A decade and a half later, it is not clear which storyline is playing itself at the Kenyan coast.
One possibility is that this latest attack has everything to do with the Somali group Al Shabaab. The group has a history of targeting football fans imbibing their four-year thirst for the World Cup. Four years after Uganda, this can be said to fit perfectly within its modus operandi. Another is that a new militia, or one that has been waiting in the shadows, is simply showing its hand with the full knowledge that the Al Shabaab propaganda machinery is so far advanced that any proof that anyone else did it will be inconsequential. One way to assess which one is at play here is to consider where 50 people would get military fatigues and high calibre rifles, and move stealthily in the early evening to a massacre with no one noticing. The Al Shabaab favours small attack units outside Somalia, as is common with terror organisations, to limit the information flow and prevent leaks. Local militias can work with larger groups because they have a better foothold and can exploit emotive issues such as tribe and affiliation to evoke loyalty over the short-term.
If the latter storyline is true then local issues such as land and other resources need be reviewed and practical solutions found to prevent revenge attacks and wanton waste of life and property. Whichever it is, it is likely that the emotive issues such as tribe, religion and economic differences are just garb for deeper issues of greater human concern such as resource allocation and injustices committed in the last five decades. Away in the capital city, the central government needs to look like it’s doing something more than just airing glamorous TV ads about security cameras and holding unnecessary press conferences.
The populace is uneasy and terrified. No one cares who is targeting Kenyans and their visitors anymore; all we all care about is that attacks need to be stopped. Our social contract with the government, where we give up our rights to live in a civilised and safe society, is currently looking very imbalanced as the taxes go up and with them the bullets and the grenades. We need to get back to our lives, and this is not merely nostalgia, when all we had to worry about was where the next meal would come from, which African team would break our curse at the World Cup, and how much to bribe the next police officer.