Two incidents that portray Kenya’s security forces in a very unflattering and revolting light occurred in the past two weeks.
Although the incidents took place in Samburu and Garissa counties, the cause, the consequences and the official reaction by the government couldn’t have been more starkly different.
In Samburu, assailants believed to be from Turkana County killed more than 40 police officers in cold blood.
Apart from trying to prosecute politicians from the Turkana community, there were no reprisals or even an attempt to pursue perpetrators of the heinous crime. The government meekly kept mum.
In the Garissa incident, unknown assailants believed to be members of the Al-Shabaab terrorist group killed three soldiers. The government’s reaction was swift and brutal. Soldiers from the local army garrison went on the rampage.
Live bullets were fired indiscriminately on an unarmed civilian population.
Members of security forces set on fire residential houses, a factory, shops, hotels, and a market.
Whereas there was killing, looting and burning of property in Garissa, in Turkana, the government showed commendable restraint.
So why did the government act so swiftly and violently in Garissa and so timidly in Samburu? The answer lies in the history of the Northern Frontier District (NFD).
It must be appreciated that Kenya’s security forces have a long history of committing gross human rights violations against civilian populations in northern Kenya.
Some of these atrocities are well documented. In 1982, Garissa town was torched after bandits killed a police officer in the town.
In 1984, security forces killed scores of people in the infamous Wagalla massacre in Wajir.
Another smaller massacre -- the Malkamerey in Mandera -- also occurred in northern Kenya.
It is well known that northern Kenya was under emergency law between 1963 and 1992, when the Constitution deleted the emergency powers of the government over northern Kenya.
So when the government let loose security forces on an unarmed civilian population to seek revenge for the killing of three soldiers, the security men were acting in the context of their historical transgression against civilians in northern Kenya.
The Garissa incident also provided an opportune moment for the government to send a strong signal and remind the people of Garissa of their place in the country.
The message being that after almost 50 years of independence, northern Kenya and its inhabitants are not truly part of Kenya.
The Army is seen by a majority of inhabitants of northern Kenya as an occupying Army. It is not seen as an indigenous force that is part of the local people.
The Kenyan Army also sees as its primary duty to protect the rest of the country from inhabitants of northern Kenya.
That has been the Army’s strategic understanding of its role in the defence of the country.
A number of troubling issues arise in the Garissa incident. Who ordered the security forces to undertake the Garissa operation?
The Minister for Defence, Mr Yusuf Haji, a native of Garissa, is rightly embarrassed by this incident. He stated that he did not authorise the operation and was unaware of what was happening.
This raises a fundamental issue. First it rules out the possibility that the operation was a riotous action by the local commander and his soldiers.
It is more probable that the President gave the order. The buck stops with the President whenever members of the Army achieve success or commit acts of infamy.
He is their Commander-in-Chief. In the military command chain, he is the ultimate authority. So did President Kibaki order the operation? An urgent answer to this question is needed.
Ahmednasir Abdullahi is the publisher, Nairobi Law Monthly [email protected]