The attack on Kenyan troops in Somalia is the latest evidence that the object of securing the country from terrorist threats is far from accomplished. Although this latest attack risks being upstaged by the heightened political activity around elections, it is also possible that its timing will increase chances of making a discussion about national security an election issue, something it clearly merits.
Although Kenya had already committed troops to Somalia in Operation Linda Nchi, national security remained a backwater issue during the last campaigns, upstaged by the cases against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto before the International Criminal Court. There remained doubts as to whether, in view of the cases, the two would even be allowed on the ballot. After they took power at the beginning of 2013, new concerns set in as to how they would manage to govern while facing cases before the ICC.
National security was thrust into the centre of the country’s political life following the attack on the Westgate Mall, where dozens of people were killed in cold blood, and the iconic building left in ruins following an ill-explained fire.
In the wake of the Westgate attack, the big political actors momentarily closed ranks in a public display of solidarity. However, a strong sense of outrage over the incompetent and aggravating official response to the tragedy soon reinstated the old political divisions. In response to public pressure, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that an official inquiry into the Westgate tragedy would be held.
At the time of the Westgate tragedy, Kenyatta had been in office for only five months, and was clearly unpractised in his new responsibilities. The reason for not establishing an inquiry, as he had promised, may have to do with the fact he received better advice against commencing a public investigation on Westgate.
At the time the President promised an investigation, he did not know what has now come to pass, that Westgate was only the first in a series of devastating terrorist attacks that al-Shabaab would stage on Kenyan soil. After Westgate, the attack on Mpeketoni came, and then the two Mandera attacks and finally the slaughter of students at Garissa University.
Other than the monumental tragedy that each of these attacks represented, the attacks also brought massive embarrassment to Jubilee, exposing the lack of a national security plan, as well as a lack of the most basic capacity to alleviate the massive human suffering that came in the wake of each attack. Under the circumstances, national security took its place as an issue of significant political concern for the government.
While the President had initially shown a readiness to bring openness in the management of national security, this approach was soon abandoned and, in relation to all the attacks after Westgate, a policy of official obfuscation has become evident.
Obfuscation is the creation of misleading, ambiguous and plausible but confusing information with a view to concealment or evasion. One tactic used to achieve obfuscation is the manufacture of controversy where none exists. For example, after decade-long battles with regulators over the harmful effects of smoking, the cigarette industry became adept fabricating controversies about established scientific facts, with a view to avoiding responsibility for selling cigarettes. This is a tactic that Jubilee has employed as part of its obfuscation as a tactic for managing public reactions to terrorism-induced insecurity.
Following the Mpeketoni attack, for which al-Shabaab had already claimed responsibility, President Kenyatta issued a statement exonerating the group from responsibility for the attack which he characterised as “politically motivated ethnic violence” by “local networks” against a local community. The President was widely understood as saying that the Mpeketoni attack was the work of the political opposition, specifically Raila Odinga, and was calculated against local members of the Kikuyu community.
By denying established facts, the President contrived a new controversy and, in the process, exonerated his government from blame, which he now heaped on the opposition. At the same time, his actions deepened the considerable political cleavages in the country.
The creation of alternative facts has also been evident in the reaction to the two massacres against Kenyan troops inside Somalia. While the government denied claims by both al-Shabaab and the outgoing president of Somalia as to the number of soldiers killed in el-Ade, it refused to provide its own casualty figures. Also, there are vast differences in the accounts by the government, on the one hand, and independent sources, on the other, as to what transpired during the latest attack at Kulbiyow.
Since the Garissa attack, the government has now evolved a new tactic for dealing with insecurity. This is the tactic of treating serious security incidents as non-events. The inexcusable delay in responding to the Garissa University attack was partly the result of this approach. While media focus succeeded in generating some attention to the tragedy, this was fleeting, as the political leadership soon moved on after declaring three days of mourning, leaving families to handle grief on their own.
Towards the monumental tragedies of el-Ade and Kulbiyow, the leadership has played the non-event card, easy to deploy because the tragedies occurred on hostile foreign soil, where it is difficult to access independent information, as well as the obfuscation card, evidenced by creation of alternative facts. These tactics completely neutralise any sense of outrage there might have been.
To paraphrase Paulo Coelho, if you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal. Over time, the meaning of Kenyan troops in Somalia has changed, and is no longer an act of national salvation as Operation Linda Nchi was originally presented. Even if Kenyan troops remained in Somalia for another century, they cannot win the war against al-Shabaab, an asymmetrical adversary that relies on stealth. In the circumstances, remaining in Somalia has become a meaningless but dangerous routine.