In September last year when Al-Shabaab terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall, killing nearly 70 and wounding over 100, Kenya rallied like never before.
When President Kenyatta and other leaders and commentators said the attack had been a “failure” and that it had only succeeded in bringing out the best in the country, they were right.
Then the Mpeketoni attack happened on Sunday and Monday nights, and the tone has changed. It has set off a divisive debate, after Cabinet Secretary Joseph ole Lenku, then later, President Kenyatta said it was the work of “local politicians”, not Al-Shabaab — who actually claimed it.
Some have understood that to mean he was pointing a finger at the opposition, Cord. The opposition has pushed back angrily, with Senator Moses Wetangula labelling the accusations a “joke”.
In one sense, it is not important who is right or wrong here. The more critical issues are two: first, how did we get to this pass? Secondly, what is Al-Shabaab thinking as it looks on?
There is no doubt that the Westgate victims were more “politically correct” than the Mpeketoni ones. There was no obvious attempt by the killers to discriminate against their victims on the basis of race, tribe, age, or sex — they killed them regardless.
The only attempt they made was to find out who were “good Muslims” or not. In the end they decided that all the Muslims at Westgate were bad ones, so they killed several of them too. So there were victims from several corners of Kenya and the world, and from all religions.
WORKING CLASS TARGETS
With Mpeketoni, populated mainly by the Kikuyu, it was understandable that one would feel they were targeted on ethnic basis — although that of itself isn’t enough reason to rule out Al-Shabaab’s hand.
However, if we stand back with calmer minds, clearly the terrorists’ target choice has changed in shrewd ways.
If I were Al-Shabaab, I would not choose another target like Westgate because not only would I end up uniting Kenya, I would also generate huge international solidarity for it.
Perhaps that is the reason why the places where culturally diverse audiences hang out in Nairobi, even though they have tighter security, have not reported being terrorists’ targets since Westgate.
The terrorists have been focusing on working class targets; buses, matatus, markets, and pubs. One immediate difference is that these targets have not generated the same international solidarity as Westgate.
When Gikomba Market was hit, it struck a raw nerve.
There were reports of police stopping angry traders from marching on Eastleigh, the Somali-dominated business suburb. This action was driven by the perception that the terrorists were Somalis and Muslims, so they needed to be given a taste of their own medicine.
In time, we might think back to that point and see it as the turning point. What the terrorists needed was to set Kenyan against Kenyan.
In Nigeria, the Boko Haram terrorists have tried very hard to get the mainly Christian South to turn against the Muslim North, but they have failed so far although they have been at it longer than the terrorists in Kenya.
Assuming Al-Shabaab were not involved in the Mpeketoni massacre, now that they have seen the potential to light Kenya’s ethnic powder-keg, the real danger is they will do their own ethnic thing and cause more divisions.
A country riven by sectarian schisms can’t fight terrorism.
Take something like the Kenya Defence Forces presence in Somalia, whose withdrawal Al-Shabaab has been demanding.
Though there has been dissent over the issue, on the few times we have had opinion polls on the matter, they have indicated a majority in support of KDF. And after Westgate, we saw Cord leader Raila Odinga and President Kenyatta side by side, with the former on several occasions saying KDF should stay on in Somalia.
In the current environment, we can expect partisan divisions over issues like the KDF in Somalia, a position that makes it difficult to maintain Kenya’s current policy on Somalia in the long run.
Whether or not they did Mpeketoni, this week Kenyan politics (and venomous Kenyan-on-Kenyan attacks on social media) finally gave Al-Shabaab the prize that had long eluded it.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. (mgafrica.com). Twitter: @cobbo3