In 1919, German sociologist Max Weber, in his essay Politics as Vocation, put forth the theory that government is defined as an entity that "upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order."
If one considers this to be accurately definitive of a nation-state, Kenya is in serious trouble. The most glaring recent evidence is the November 12 report from the village of Baragoi, in Kenya’s northern Samburu region, where over 40 police officers were ambushed and slaughtered by Turkana tribesmen.
This audacious attack on police, by far the most lethal in the country’s history, is evidence of the increasingly adversarial nature in which the central government is perceived outside Nairobi—and for the Kenyan state, juggling such tensions since indepedence in 1963, that is saying something. The security apparatus has long been viewed as a corrupt and brutal entity by the vast majority of Kenyans. The government’s response to the election violence in 2007/2008, which resulted in an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation of several officials for crimes against humanity, and the various disarmament campaigns that it has undertaken in Kenya’s hinterlands over the years, clearly demonstrate that crackdowns have been indiscriminate and extremely violent. Currently, the poisonous cocktail of widespread police and military brutality, increasingly lethal inter-communal ethnic violence in several regions, the anxious countdown to the March 2013 presidential elections, and uncertainty over the implementation of major constitutional reforms has transformed Kenya’s security situation from precarious to explosive.
The Baragoi attack itself is rooted in the semi-constant Turkana-Samburu conflict, where the two ethnic groups compete with one another over grazing rights and water access in Kenya’s arid northern region. Recently, the Turkana raided over 600 head of cattle from the Samburu, which resulted in the predictable tit-for-tat retaliations and fatalities. When the Kenyan government deployed large numbers of police there who hail from other parts of the country, they bolstered the force with local auxiliary police—most of them Samburu, hence giving the impression they were taking sides in the conflict. When the officers entered the nearby valley to confront the cattle-rustlers, they were greeted with a barrage of automatic weapon fire.
The attack, which sent shockwaves through Kenyan media and government, was followed by another outbreak of violence, this time in the predominantly Somali town of Garissa, capital of the North Eastern Province. Police deployed to Kenya’s insecure areas are often of a different ethnic background than the local community. Whether this is the best policy is open to question, nowhere more so than in the country’s eastern Somali-populated regions. The police and military deployed from “down Kenya” are despised in these areas. This is due to heavy-handed disarmament campaigns to break up the regular flare-ups of Somali clan violence, the fact that Kenya invaded Somalia in order to quell insecurity on its eastern border and, basically, because the Kenyan state has never been completely comfortable with its Somali citizens. Given the recent events in Samburu, (and a grenade attack on a public bus that killed nine people in Nairobi’s Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh) the police and military were even more trigger-happy and on edge than usual. When three soldiers were shot and killed while changing a tire in Garissa, the security forces went on a rampage, destroying the market and sending over 50 civilians to the hospital, at least eight of them with gunshot wounds. Therefore in the space of two weeks, in two very different parts of Kenya, we have seen stark examples of the simultaneously incompetent, brutal and divisive nature of Kenya’s security sector.
This does not bode well for the future, where the variables for possible insecurity are ever increasing. The most glaringly obvious of these is the March 2013 presidential elections. The contest will likely see current Prime Minister Railia Odinga face off against Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, a hero in the Kikuyu community, considered by many non-Kikuyu to be representative of Kenya’s ruling elites. Kenya has a long history of relatively low-level, ethnically driven election violence; however in 2007 such dynamics were taken to unprecedented levels, where residents of certain regions were deemed to be ‘invaders’ that needed expulsion. When the election between Odinga, an ethnic Luo from the Rift Valley, and incumbent Mwai Kibaki, a Kikuyu, was deemed too close to call, violence exploded. By the time the two candidates reached a settlement, over 1,300 people had been killed, mostly in the Rift Valley, and tens of thousands displaced.
Subsequently, a power-sharing agreement saw Kibaki stay on as president and Odinga appointed prime minister. Several of the key players on both sides were indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity, namely Kenyatta and William Ruto. Ruto is an ethnic Kalenjin politician, who backed Odinga in the 2007 elections, and was charged for mobilizing mobs of his supporters to attack Kikuyus in the Rift Valley. Just this week (of November 26) Kenyatta and Ruto, both waiting for a court ruling to decide whether they can actually run due to their indictments, have announced they will contest the presidency on the same ticket. Considering that large numbers of their constituent communities were killing each other in 2008, allegedly on their orders, this decision strikes some as a symbol of national unity, and others as desperate political maneuvering against Odinga and his Luo supporters. Current polling indicates that the election between Odinga and Kenyatta/Ruto will likely see the two candidates in a runoff. This is the worst possible scenario. The events of 2008 are firmly in the collective memory of the residents of large portions of Kenya who felt the brunt of the fighting, and tensions may well be increased to breaking-point once again.
As if this were not enough to deal with, the county is facing challenges on several other fronts—both internally and externally. Kenya’s decision to invade Somalia as a response to insecurity on its eastern border has made it a target for Islamist militants al-Shabaab. Since the Kenya Defense Forces pushed them out of Kismayo, their last territorial stronghold in Somalia, this group has become less of an insurgency and more of a pure terrorist organization. Al-Shabaab has carried out numerous revenge attacks and kidnappings in Mombasa, Garissa, Mandera, Dadaab, and Nairobi. Apart from a grenade attack on a church in Garissa that saw 17 people killed, the number of deaths has generally been in the single digits. However, in 2010, al-Shabaab perpetrated an attack on a bar in the Ugandan capital of Kampala during the World Cup final (in response to Uganda’s leading role in the African Union mission in Somalia) which saw over 70 people killed by a probable suicide bomber. It is far from unlikely that an attack of such magnitude may eventually happen in Nairobi as well.
This external threat reverberates in Kenya’s domestic challenges, not only in the eastern regions close to Somalia, but also along the coast. In surely one of the most quixotic independence movements in the world, the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) is agitating for autonomy or even secession from the Kenyan state for the city of Mombasa and its adjacent coastal region. The idea that Nairobi would ever entertain giving up the tourist income from this idyllic coastline or the revenue from the most vital port in East Africa is absurd, yet the movement has fervent supporters. The population is largely Muslim and includes significant numbers of Somalis. When in September of this year MRC leader Sheikh Aboud Rogo Mohammed was assassinated by unknown assailants in a drive-by shooting in broad daylight, Mombasa descended into three days of rioting. The blame for the killing was laid at the feet of the Nairobi government, and by extension the U.S. government, as Sheikh Rogo allegedly had ties to al-Shabaab. It seems implausible that Washington would sanction such a clumsy operation, and it has been argued that the killing was done by al Shabaab itself to stir up tensions in Kenya. If so, they certainly succeeded.
The real wild card for Kenya's near future, however, is constitutional devolution. Few would argue that constitutional reform was not needed prior to its enactment in 2010. Nairobi currently asserts central administrative control over eight bloated provinces. The new constitution stipulates that those provinces will devolve into 47 counties, each with at least one member of Parliament, to be enacted at the same time as the election results come in next March. This has created not only an atmosphere of legal uncertainty in business and government, but an enormous amount of scrambling by political opportunists. The common perception in these regions is that whoever represents the counties will receive a cash and power dividend from Nairobi, and significant control over local patronage networks.
This is a crisis in the making. The low-level conflicts that permeate throughout the country such as those seen in Samburu earlier this month, which Nairobi elites generally dismiss as bush tribalism, will now be directly linked to the government’s devolutionary process. Indeed, a government minister was sacked and arrested due to an accusation that he fanned the flames of the ethnic conflict in the Tana River region earlier this year, which saw widespread inter-communal violence between the Orma and Pokomo ethnic groups that resulted in over 100 people being murdered, many of them women and children. He in turn accused another government minister of stoking the ethnic clashes, highlighting the divisive political discourse throughout the country. Further raising the stakes is the boom in extractive resources that Kenya is currently experiencing, with major oil finds in the unstable Turkana region in the north and further exploration ongoing elsewhere, making the political power-grabbing among ethnic groups to control these areas all the more contentious.
This is the danger in Kenya’s long-neglected and marginalized outlying regions—a pervasive mood of fear and apprehension among different ethnic groups over their future political status and livelihoods, but little fear of a simultaneously impotent and brutal state security apparatus viewed increasingly as both illegitimate and adversarial to their aspirations. Hence the bold decision of the Turkana to massacre over 40 police in Samburu, and Somalis taking pot-shots at soldiers in Garissa. For its part, the government has promised a swift retaliation and deployed further military units to both regions. Widespread and indiscriminate revenge attacks by the security services are expected, with Turkana now fleeing their area in large numbers, while Garissa is currently a ghost town. For the Turkana, semi-nomads living in Kenya’s sparsely-populated northwest, they will bide their time and pick their battles as their interests dictate. For the Somalis, themselves internally divided along clan lines, the situation is strained to breaking point. Indeed, the only unifying factor for many Somalis seems to be a hatred of a Kenyan government that both alienates and abuses them.
As the center of East Africa’s finance and the international community’s transport hub for humanitarian interventions in Eastern Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan (which flow operationally through Mombasa and Nairobi), Kenya is the region’s most vital nation. The various United Nations and African Union missions in East Africa cost billions of dollars annually, and their activities will be threatened if Kenya continues to sink into increased conflict. As the elections get closer and tensions rise on multiple fronts, Washington, London, and Brussels need to liaise with Nairobi to mitigate what is surely coming—the only questions are what level these tensions will reach, and whether the Kenyan police and military can respond effectively and even-handedly, rather than losing battles or conducting operations that result in International Criminal Court investigations. On the latter issue, given what happened in the 2008 elections, the current answer is it clearly cannot.
Western governments hold Kenya in high regard, with humanitarian aid pouring in for health, livelihoods, and drought mitigation programs. Nairobi is the headquarters for dozens of international NGOs, perhaps hundreds. However, incidents of inter-communal violence and attacks by and against the police are rising at an alarming rate. Given the government’s increasing inability to maintain order and with the elections just four months away, the fact that Kenya has not received a windfall of funding from the global humanitarian donors for peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and security sector reform projects in its various affected regions is bewildering. Whether or not they would be successful is open to debate, but for the international community to make such a paltry "business as usual" effort in Kenya’s increasingly poisonous political climate is whistling past the graveyard.