SIX years after Kenya erupted into ferocious ethnic battles and post-election violence, security guard John Mboya is fearful once again, after twin massacres on the coast brought political rivalries to the surface. “When the leaders argue, it is people like me who will suffer if a fight starts,” bemoaned Mboya, recalling the intensity of 2007-8 violence, when communities in his crowded slum in the capital Nairobi divided along tribal lines and turned on each other after disputed elections. “People are very worried, they don’t understand what will happen,” he said.
Attacks last week on the coastal Mpeketoni district left at least 60 dead and were claimed by Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents, though President Uhuru Kenyatta blamed “well-planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence” carried out by “local political networks”.The reaction served to highlight the intensity of the rivalry between Kenyatta and his old rival Raila Odinga, a former prime minister who failed in a bid for the presidency last year. “Kenya is on such a knife-edge that the intensifying prospect of instability has millions of Kenyans deeply worried,” The Star newspaper said in an editorial.
Bitter memories are still fresh from 2007, when elections escalated into ethnic conflict in which more than 1,200 people were killed, violence for which Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto face crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC). “It is certainly not inevitable the political rhetoric could descend into violence, but it is possible, and that is the worrying part,” said Cedric Barnes of the International Crisis Group. Externally, there are major threats from Somalia’s Shebab, who have carried out a string of revenge attacks for Kenya’s military role in southern Somalia, including last year’s siege of the Westgate shopping mall that left 67 people dead.
The Mpeketoni attacks, however, were unprecedented: heavily armed insurgents storming an urban centre deep inside Kenya, and fleeing before ill-equipped security could react, echoing tactics used by Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamist militants. Western security officials — and the Shebab themselves — are adamant it was them, albeit with local Kenyan knowledge from recruits or Islamist supporters on the ground. “The terrorists have us in a bind, divided and inattentive to the larger picture,” former deputy president Musalia Mudavadi wrote in Kenya’s media.
The gunmen appeared to choose the target and timing of the attack for maximum impact. “The target was ideal if they wanted to divide Kenyans,” one Western security official said, noting it targeted a town settled decades ago by the Kikuyu people, the same tribe as Kenyatta. “The president took it as an attack on his people,” the security source added. Tensions were already high following Odinga’s announcement last month that he planned to stage mass anti-government rallies on July 7, the anniversary of protests for multi-party democracy in the 1990s.
Foreign diplomats say the leadership feels genuinely threatened by Odinga’s planned rallies. Anti-western sentiment has grown in some quarters, over the backing for the ICC trials and Odinga, who has also recently returned from several months in the US. On Wednesday, youths torched effigies of Odinga in central Nairobi along with British and American flags.
Despite efforts to heal the wounds of the ethnic killings, tensions still run deep between communities, with many key grievances that fed into the violence — most notably land ownership rights and claims that minorities are being marginalised — still unresolved. The 2007-8 violence erupted when Odinga accused then president Mwai Kibaki of rigging his way to re-election, but what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe, the country’s largest single group.
In turn, they launched reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of violence since independence in 1963. Kenya’s influential Daily Nation newspaper has called for leaders to focus on the country, warning that recent attacks should not be “used as an excuse to muzzle the opposition or stifle debate”.”Working together to douse the flames consuming us all is far more urgent than doggedly sticking to our own positions,” it warned.
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