In 2011, I wrote a piece for the Foreign Affairs website on Kenya’s invasion of Somalia.
I warned that the Kenyan military campaign was unlikely to stabilise southern Somalia but could instead provoke attacks on its own soil. I concluded that the war against Al-Shabaab would result in domestic political turmoil rather than defeat of the insurgents.
It gives me no satisfaction to have been proven at least partly correct; watching Kenya from afar this week has been grim. Mombasa is in turmoil, civil servants are fleeing Mandera, protests against insecurity are being mounted on the streets of Nairobi and politicians from all parties are demanding security chiefs be fired.
We are stuck in a spiral of violence and the government is unable to find a way out. Instead, the same meaningless statements are issued. Despite his efforts to project an image of himself as a military leader in full battle attire a few months ago, President Kenyatta is, again, attempting to deflect blame by claiming that “the responsibility (for security) lies with me and you”.
These are strange words from a commander-in-chief. His deputy, on the other hand, prefers to boast of the Kenya Defence Forces’ fire power. Ruto’s claims on Sunday that KDF killed 100 Al-Shabaab fighters and sympathisers in a revenge attack beg several questions. The first is simple. If the KDF knew where the camp was to launch an attack on Sunday, why was it unable to prevent Al-Shabaab from carrying out the attack on the bus in Mandera?
We should also be asking why Ruto still believes such apparently indiscriminate attacks serve any useful purpose. After three years, counter-terrorism has only consolidated support for Al-Shabaab along Kenya’s frontier rather than defeated the militants.
The pattern of Al-Shabaab attacks, counterattacks by security forces and a crackdown on suspected Islamists is now firmly engrained. No less troubling, demanding the heads of Inspector-General David Kimaiyo and Interior minister Joseph ole Lenku appears to be the only positive change on the agenda.
Firing them clearly cannot make insecurity any worse and would satisfy the public’s reasonable demand for accountability. But given their atrocious records in their current posts, one can only conclude that the function the hapless pair performs is to absorb the criticism that the President would otherwise have to face. Incompetent courtiers can have great value to rulers.
We seem doomed to endure Kimaiyo and Lenku for the rest of the life of this government. But with the current security strategy, even if they are fired, there is little reason to hope for an improvement. The strategy is not working. Any gains that might have been made in Nairobi are more than cancelled out by the situation at the coast and north eastern Kenya.
President Kenyatta’s riposte to his critics that there “will never be one policeman for everyone” is ridiculous. Kenyans do not want excessive policing; they just want some sort of credible protection. At Mpeketoni and now at Mandera, innocent victims were left to die for hours and the attackers were able to flee before police arrived. The government is failing to meet its obligation to protect its citizens regardless of where they live.
EXIT STRATEGY NEEDED
That the government needs an exit strategy from Somalia and to overhaul relations with Somali Kenyans is obvious. But some honesty is also needed about the roots of the violence we are witnessing.
The language of jihad and the global war on terrorism encourage us to look outside Kenya’s borders for explanations for insecurity. Such a view results in facile comparisons to Nigeria, Iraq or Syria. All such examples have in common with the situation in Somalia and in northern Kenya is that each demonstrates the failings of the current orthodoxy of counter-terrorism.
Rather than Chibok, Kobane or Mosul, those looking to identify the causes of violence and disaffection in Mandera, Mombasa or Lamu should be looking at Baringo or Turkana. Social inequality, political marginalisation, and availability of arms are the root of Kenya’s ills.
The same basic reasons for insecurity have periodically blighted the country since at least the early 1990s. Until the government’s response to insecurity in north eastern Kenya pays attention to such countrywide matters, there is no reason to expect much. Insecurity is a political problem rather than a military issue.
Attacking terrorist camps, increasing surveillance or sacking cabinet secretaries and police chiefs will never be enough.
Prof Branch teaches history and politics at the University of Warwick