Security in Kenya has always been a sore spot. People are routinely hit with either waves of robberies or ethnic based violence. In recent years, terror attacks have become an unwelcomed addition. The international press reports tragic events, like the Westgate affair in September 2013. Strikes on solitary police posts at the border with Somalia go unnoticed however; and the destruction of Churches’ property or the abduction of citizens are often unknown even to Kenyans.
The violence is the work of small groups, which keep the country hostage. On the one side there is Al-Shabaab, a Somali based terror group, on the other, small Kenyan Islamic factions loosely linked to Al-Qaeda or the Saudi Salafist movement. It is not clear if these groups act in concert, or they simply pursue similar agenda.
On March 23rd, three gunmen attacked an Evangelical Church in Likoni, near Mombasa, killing four and wounding others. A week later, a series of explosions rocked Eastleigh, a neighbourhood of the capital Nairobi. Seven people died and over twenty were injured in the attack. On April 1st, radical Islamist and terror suspect Sheikh Abubakar Shariff – alias Makaburi ñ was killed by two hit men in Shimo la Tewa, about 20 km north of Mombasa.
Sheikh Abubakar Shariff gained his nickname – Makaburi is Swahili for ‘tombs’- after a spell in Yemen. When he returned to Mombasa, he started preaching against the tradition of burying imams in mosques and personally destroyed some of the graves. Makaburi was not an imam, and gained the title of Sheikh for his fierce defence of Islam. Yet, he did address fellow Muslim and had a great following among the youth. Only a week before his death, he was recorded preaching in favour of Somali reaction against Kenyans, and asking his followers to kill Christian leaders to seek revenge against the West’s attack on Somalia.
Intelligence officials linked him to the assault in Likoni. They allegedly intercepted telephone calls which showed how Makaburi aided Al Hijra militants, an affiliate of Al-Shabaab in Mombasa, to procure guns and commit the massacre. Many suspect that the killing of such a prominent figure could not happen without explicit permission from the highest authority in the country: President Uhuru Kenyatta. Those who know him personally assure that Uhuru is unforgiving and determined to have it his way. Since President Kenyatta has shown determination in fighting terrorists, one may assume that he at least approved such a line of action. There are, however, signs that other forces are at play.
Two other prominent Islamic leaders have been gunned down in Mombasa in recent years: Sheikh Abdou Rogo and Sheikh Ibrahim Rogo (no relation). On both occasions, Makaburi pointed the finger against the Anti Terrorism Police Unit. It has since emerged that Ibrahim Rogo had been banned from preaching in Malindi, a town north of Mombasa, by the local Muslim community just days before being killed.
A new approach
In the days following Makaburi’s death, various Islamic groupings reiterated their commitment to peace, dialogue and non-violence. Many imams from the coastal region condemned Makaburi’s style of preaching. Numerous readers of the main newspapers commented the news online, identified themselves as Muslim and remonstrated against violent people in their midst. This is the first time in Kenyan history that the Muslim community has taken such a strong position against violence, distancing itself from those who commit atrocities in the name of Islam.
There are signs that the government has opened a dialogue with Muslim leaders. A fact in point is that planned anti-government demonstrations were forbidden by Mombasa’s imams and did not take place. This is a new approach from the central government, one that could yield fruits since Kenya Muslim are generally moderate and uncomfortable with radical views.
There is also a second group opposing the radicalization of Islam in Kenya: the business community. Resort owners, those controlling the great distribution of goods and even small dealers, are all suffering from the insecurity. Kenya is losing tourists, its beaches and parks have ceased to attract visitors. Tourism companies are afraid of the insecurity and stopped proposing Kenya as a prime destination.
As with Sheikh Rogo, also Makaburi had been expelled from Malindi after the local business community objected to his presence there. It is an open secret that traders and investors do not like the radicalization of Islam preached by imams who studied in Yemen and took the place of local clerics. Some suggest that they are the real brain behind the killing of Muslim leaders and the sudden disappearance of other radical Islamists.
In the murky background of terror planners and intelligence plotters, it is difficult to ascertain the truth. Most probably, all these factors are playing a role, supporting each other in different aims. The next months will tell if the strategy chosen by the government of Kenya is paying dividends.
Mepukori ole Karam