NAIROBI – It sounds like the plot of an old Western movie. A posse of desperados gallops into a frontier town, burns the saloon, robs the bank, guns down leading citizens, and disappears into the dead of night before the sheriff gets himself out of bed.
That is what has happened, repeatedly in recent days, in a small Kenyan town named Mpeketoni, just south of the Somali border on the Indian Ocean coast. Last week, a gang of armed men hijacked a mini-fleet of matatus, small group taxis, and roared into the city center, shooting as they went. They set shops and banks ablaze. In neighboring villages, they went door to door, asking for citizens by name. Those who were Muslim and could prove it by reciting the Koran were spared. Others were shot at point-blank range or hacked to death.
The killers went about their gruesome business with an almost carefree attitude. The shooting began shortly after 8:30 in the evening and went on until dawn. Despite the resounding gunfire and frantic alarms, no security forces responded until the attackers were safely gone. Police at the local station, scarcely 100 meters away, fled into the bush – despite the fact that senior intelligence officials in Nairobi had warned regional commanders three days before that a terrorist attack might be imminent.
Buoyed by their easy success that first night, the assassins came back the next for a second round of mayhem – and again a few days later. A total of 65 people have died.
The sequence of events has shocked the country and given rise to a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories. One is that Somali al-Shabaab terrorists had struck again. Since the group’s infamous attack on the Westgate shopping mall in the center of Nairobi last year, Kenya has experienced a slew of smaller-scale incidents, ranging from explosive devices planted in crowded markets to attacks on bars, police stations, and public transport. Al-Shabaab claimed credit for the Mpeketoni massacre, but top Kenyan authorities pointed elsewhere.
Some said the attacks were homegrown – the acts of an emerging local underground, not unlike the Islamist extremists of Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Over the past year, a number of radical Muslim clerics have been killed in mysterious circumstances in Mombasa, the major city on Kenya’s restive coast. The targeting of non-Muslims in Mpeketoni and surrounding villages, this theory goes, was payback by a new breed of extremists determined to mete out “justice” on their own.
A third explanation is darker still: the rise of a newly violent tribalism. President Uhuru Kenyatta has blamed “local political networks” and unscrupulous politicians for orchestrating the violence and fomenting a dangerous climate of ethnic hatred.
Clearly, there is an unsettling ethnic dimension to the killings. Decades ago, following independence, Kenya’s founding father, Jomo Kenyatta, sent thousands of his own Kikuyu tribesmen to settle around Mpeketoni. Those displaced were mostly Muslim. To this day, many harbor deep resentment toward the outsiders, whom they regard as usurpers.
Ominously, all of this comes against a backdrop of ethnic tension elsewhere. In central Kenya, Kikuyu residents of the Rift Valley, the traditional home of the Kalenjin tribe, have lately been receiving anonymous leaflets inviting them to “go home.” Just days ago in the Northeastern province of Mandera, men from the Degodia clan torched homes and businesses owned by members of the rival Gare clan. An estimated 75,000 people have been displaced in the clashes.
To the outside world, it might seem as though Kenya is sliding toward an abyss. Without question, the past year’s insecurity has taken a toll. Some Western embassies are considering downsizing their staff. Tourism has fallen sharply, particularly at resorts along the coast. Kenyan businessmen complain that growth is slowing, along with foreign investment.
And yet, obscured by the worries over security, there is ample reason for optimism about one of Africa’s most resilient countries. Amid the new tensions, the government has taken a firm stand against anything smacking of hate speech by national or local political leaders. Security officials who failed to respond to the crisis in Mpeketoni have been fired; a similar shake-up appears likely within Kenya’s national-security agencies. Meanwhile, a robustly independent media and an active network of civil-society organizations are reporting on corruption and lobbying for development and security for all Kenyans. Business and religious leaders alike are calling for a new politics of national unity.
There was other good news, also lost amid the recent tumult: the success of a heavily oversubscribed $2 billion Eurobond issue; the discovery of the first major oil and gas field in Kenya’s coastal waters and yet another in northwestern Turkana – promising to make the country a leading African exporter.
These days, Nairobi looks more like Los Angeles than the backward Third World capital of yore. Kenya’s security challenge is serious – and likely to become worse. But the desperados will not bring the country down, for all the lurid headlines they inspire.