Last weekend, Kenya’s coastline was rocked by a series of violent terrorist attacks, undermining the remarkable stability the east African nation has achieved since ethnic conflicts divided the nation in 2007. While Somali al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab quickly claimed responsibility, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta blamed “local political networks.” Now, critics are accusing the president of using the incident to deflect attention away from the government’s poor handling of security issues.
As many as 60 people were killed by gunmen who stormed the seaside town of Mpeketoni and nearby villages from Sunday to Monday. The attackers specifically targeted the non-Muslim Kikuyu ethnic minority, of which President Kenyatta is a member. Witnesses say the gunmen went door to door, demanding that residents recite the Islamic shahada, or profession of faith, and killed those who proved unable. The attackers then fled with minimal resistance and only a delayed response from Kenya’s security forces. In the aftermath, the government arrested five suspects, all of whom were fatally shot while trying to escape on Thursday, according to government reports. The same day, police disbanded protests against the government’s slow response to address the attacks with tear gas and rubber bullets in the port city of Mombasa.
Terrorist attacks have been on the rise in Kenya since Somali terrorist sect al-Shabaab raided a shopping mall in Nairobi last September, killing 68. Since then, the group has received blame for several attacks, including a May bombing in Mombasa that put a dent in the country’s vital tourist industry.
The al-Qaeda linked group released a statement Monday publicly taking responsibility for the killings. The terrorist sect has waged a violent campaign to establish Sharia law in Somali for the last seven years, and has recently ratcheted up attacks in Kenya in retaliation against Kenyan troops who have crossed the border in attempts to put down the arrest. “The Mpeketoni raid was carried out in response to Kenyan military’s continued invasion and occupation of our Muslim lands and the massacre of innocent Muslims in Somalia,” al-Shabab said.
The sect claimed they targeted Mpeketoni because it was “invaded and occupied by Christian settlers,” citing the controversial relocation policy of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, President Jomo Kenyatta, which resettled 30,000 non-Muslim ethnic Kikuyus to the traditionally Muslim coastal region in the 1970s and generated considerable ethnic strife.
Kenyatta claimed that attacks were linked to recent protests led by his main political rival, former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who heads a coalition that has vocally demanded a national dialogue to address popular grievances about government mismanagement of an array of issues. Later that day, Odinga responded by calling the president’s comments “unfortunate and unjustified,” and pledged to continue protests. Odinga lost bids for the presidency in 2007 and 2013.
While government officials voiced contradictory accusations, survivors in Mpeketoni took to the streets, demanding the government address its failure to provide security. Residents were enraged the gunmen, whether Al-Shabaab or members of the opposition, were able to occupy the town without resistance for more than 10 hours. “Why are they coming now after our people have been killed? Where were they to protect us?” demanded an anonymous resident. “This government is full of talk and no action. They keep saying the country is safe and we keep suffering in the hands of terrorists.” Raila Odinga also leveled accusations at the central government, alleging that Kenya’s National Intelligence Service, or “NIS had information on the attacks which suggests that there was knowledge of those planning them yet no decisive or concrete steps were taken both at the local or national level.” Regardless of who really committed the attacks, Kenyans increasingly live in fear of violence gone unchecked and are demanding a response to the killings.
Will Freeman is an intern with Think Progress.