Politics and terrorism: Kenya's ticking time bombs

Depoliticised, non-partisan national resolve is needed to truly address rising insecurity and terrorist threats in Kenya.

Currently, Kenya faces a serious internal threat of rising insecurity. Recent waves of terrorist attacks have further complicated the state’s internal security problems, and it is evident that the Kenyan government and security system are either ineffective at utilising the security resources and capabilities, or have no genuine political will to effectively respond to increasing threats.

The state of affairs in Kenya from the 2007 and 2008 post-elections violence to the recent Mpeketoni attacks seems to suggest that Kenya is simply playing political games with the rising threat of insecurity and terrorism. Ultimately, it is Kenya as a country and Kenyan citizens in general who will pay the price as the time bombs of insecurity and the threat of terrorism tick away towards explosion.

Since the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 by the al-Shabaab terrorist group, it has become popular in Kenya for the government and the opposition to publicly politicise internal insecurity problems – including the threat of terrorism. This has even assumed an ethnic dimension, which, viewed in the context of Kenya’s history of negative ethno-political polarisation and violence, adds potency to the ticking time bombs.

There is simply no genuine political will to respond to increasing insecurity threats

Seemingly, the Kenyan security agencies had information about the impending Westgate Mall attack but failed to act in time to prevent or neutralise the situation. The uncoordinated and ineffective response to this attack enabled the terrorist siege of the mall to last several days. Despite President Uhuru Kenyatta and the government condemning the attack and promising stern action against the perpetrators, Kenyans are yet to see this.

The commission of inquiry into the attack, which Kenyatta promised, is also yet to be established. Furthermore, the period following the attack has seen a frenzy of political scapegoating among the various government agencies, and between government and the opposition, on whom should take responsibility for having failed to prevent the attack. Almost one year later, and despite a Parliamentary Committee Inquiry confirming these challenges, many questions about responsibility and accountability remain unanswered.

The government’s post-Westgate response to the rising insecurity came through the Nyumba Kumi (Ten Houses) initiative; Operation Usalama Watch; and a multi-billion shilling project to install security surveillance cameras in major cities.

The Nyumba Kumi initiative, though touted as a citizens’ neighbourhood watch, is suspected to be a government ploy to exert political control over citizens. Operation Usalama Watch was largely perceived as a discriminatory operation characterised by an undertone of religious profiling; and the security surveillance project remains entangled in deep political debate.

These initiatives therefore appear to be underpinned by an overriding political theme: that of consolidating the national psyche behind the government in the face of terrorism, and the opposition’s berating of government on claims of poor performance and failure to deliver. They also seem largely motivated by political expediency rather than well-thought-out policy and strategy that can sustain durable solutions.

Insecurity has become a tool for political manipulation by government, security agencies and opposition groups

However, insecurity – including terrorist attacks – has increased. Viewed in the context of the on-going International Criminal Court (ICC) trials of Kenyatta and his deputy – and the subsequent argument for the their trials to be withdrawn based on the claim that they are undermining Kenya’s strategic leadership role in the region – two conclusions are derivable. First; that there is simply no genuine political will to respond to the increasing insecurity threats, and secondly; that insecurity has become a tool for political manipulation by the government, state security agencies and opposition groups. A pattern of well-orchestrated politicking, inertia and political blame shifting motivated by narrow interests and focused on gaining political mileage is discernible.

The recent Mpeketoni attacks in Lamu County, for which al-Shabaab officially claimed responsibility and which left over 60 people dead, are further instances of political manipulation of insecurity and terrorism. Yet again, information was available on the impending attacks; but again government had failed to act in time. In view of the Westgate Mall attack, how is it possible that another incident of terrible neglect of duty and inaction could happen – allowing more gruesome and horrific attacks?

The Mpeketoni attacks happened amid heightened political agitation and tension over perceived government failure on a number of socio-economic and political issues. The opposition, led by Raila Odinga, has sought to gain political mileage out of the situation by demanding national dialogue and threatening to mobilise a constituency of disgruntled citizens against the government.

The government has responded by depicting the opposition as power-hungry hate-mongers bent on overthrowing the government, inciting violence and dividing the country along political and ethnic lines. The heightened political tension and blame shifting seems to have created an opportunity for long-standing political and ethnic grievances at the Kenyan coastal region to blend with terrorism, as factors behind the attacks.

The opposition remains convinced that the attacks were acts of terrorism and blamed them on government’s ineptitude. The government, however, rubbished al-Shabaab’s claim of responsibility and instead accused the opposition of fomenting ethno-political discord and violence in the country.

According to government, the Mpeketoni case was 'well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons' and emanating from ‘the heightened political environment being experienced in the country where politicians have incited people.’

Ultimately, it is the citizens of Kenya who will pay the heavy price of security threats being manipulated by the government and the opposition. What Kenya requires is national resolve to depoliticise security issues and the threat of insecurity. There must be a well-structured, multi-sectoral and multi-dimensional approach towards insecurity and terrorism; devoid of narrow, partisan political and ethnic interests, and coupled with a comprehensive policy and strategy. This would ensure appropriate, proactive and decisive counter-crime and counter-terrorism action. The Kenyan political leadership and the citizens must embrace this approach, regardless of their political and ethnic affiliation.

Peter Aling'o, Office Head and Senior Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi

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