Four explosions in less than 48 hours in Kenya's two largest cities have created an atmosphere of fear and anger.
As the camera moves shakily along Kenya’s grandest road, the Thika superhighway in Nairobi, it moves from a stopped bus with its windows blasted out to a line of people slumped on the pavement. A middle-aged woman with her skirt pulled up to show her bloodied legs looks around her for help. A few feet away a young man in a tracksuit is praying, arms aloft as he lies on the floor, his trousers shredded and smashed right leg hanging by a tendon next to him.
These shocking images of a bloody weekend of bus bombings in Kenya have been passed from mobile phone to mobile phone in the country. The victims were ordinary commuters in East Africa’s biggest city, supposedly on their way home on a Saturday afternoon along a road that is meant to symbolise Kenya’s progress as the region’s richest economy.
Whereas the spectacular assault on the upscale Westgate shopping mall last September caught international attention by targeting foreigners and wealthy Kenyans, a campaign of grenade attacks and improvised explosive devices in churches, on buses and at poorer shopping precincts has terrorised millions of ordinary Kenyans.
Four explosions in less than 48 hours in Kenya’s two largest cities – the capital, Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa – have created an atmosphere of fear and anger.
The fear focuses on Somali Islamists, al-Shabab, which was blamed for the string of blasts that left at least seven people dead and more than 70 badly injured.
Target of anger
Although the militants and the wider Somali community have been the target of anger, the latest incidents have provoked many Kenyans into turning their rage on their government. The administration’s bombastic security promises and blanket crackdown on Somali immigrants in Kenya has been made to look impotent.
The first attack on Saturday May 3 saw a grenade detonated aboard a bus in Mombasa, and a second explosion followed near an upscale tourist hotel.
By the following afternoon when a double bus bombing shook the Thika highway leading out of Nairobi, the country’s busy social media was dominated by complaints about the absence of Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president. He was conducting a state visit to Nigeria but it was notable that his office felt sufficiently stung to get the Kenyan ambassador to issue a statement defending the trip.
The locals, sub-Saharan Africa’s third biggest users of social media, took to Twitter in their tens of thousands using the hashtag #SomeoneTellUhuruKenyatta to vent their anger. Three days after the Nairobi attack and despite a barrage of government assurances it was still the top trend in Kenya. Messages like this one from a user called Baba Tawnia were typical: “Corruption is what got us here. If we don’t tackle it YESTERDAY we are fighting a losing battle!”
The Kenyatta administration’s diet of tough talk against Somali refugees living in Kenya, combined with poor performance and corruption by security agencies, has attracted mounting criticism.
Calls for resignation
The clownish interior minister, Joseph Ole Lenku, whose office vowed in December to cut insecurity in Kenya by 80% in 100 days, is facing calls to resign.
A Kenyan parliamentary committee on Tuesday called for him to show he can be effective in fighting terrorism – or resign.
More than 1.5-million Somalis live in Kenya, with roughly one-third of that number having refugee status. Since the turn of the year Kenya has insisted that all refugees, some of whom had moved into towns and cities to find work, must be returned to overcrowded camps near the border with Somalia. Thousands of ethnic Somalis have been arrested in migrant sweeps condemned by human rights monitors.
“Scapegoating and abusing Somalis for heinous attacks by unknown people is not going to protect Kenyans, Somalis, or anyone else against more attacks,” said Gerry Simpson from Human Rights Watch. “Kenya’s deportation of Somalis to their conflict-ridden country without allowing them to seek asylum would be a flagrant breach of its legal obligations.”
The failure to sack a single leading official in the wake of the appalling mishandling of the Westgate shopping mall attack last September has shredded public confidence in the police and the army. Soldiers sent in to battle al-Shabab terrorists inside the shopping centre were later shown to have looted the shopping centre and walked out with their booty in shopping bags.
Ory Okollah, a Kenyan technologist and investor, who is one of the country’s most influential voices online, lambasted the government on Twitter: “The casual way in which [the] Westgate inquiry was treated, with a focus on a half-assed cover-up, tells you how serious this govt is re security.”
It has also prompted a fresh round of questions about what Kenya is doing occupying part of Somalia, its chaotic northern neighbour. Kenya’s main opposition, the Orange Democratic Movement, responded to the blasts by calling for Kenyan troops to withdraw from Somalia.
“We seem to be staying in Somalia without realising the full costs and we are now paying for it,” said Anyang’ Nyong’o, the party’s acting leader. “Families have lost breadwinners and loved ones and KDF [Kenya Defence Force] is not coming to their aid.”
Criticism of operations in neighbouring Somalia drew a sharp rebuke from Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto on Monday: “The government will not allow terrorists to dictate or blackmail us into changing our local or foreign policy. We will not withdraw until Somalia has a stable and secure government free from terror.”
The government has faced scepticism over its true motives in Somalia, with some experts accusing Kenya of seeking to create a buffer state in the south of the failed state. Kenya invaded its northern neighbour in late 2011, ostensibly in response to a spate of cross-border kidnappings that were affecting aid operations and the tourism industry. Kenyan troops have since been amalgamated into the African Union mission in Somalia, along with forces from Uganda, Ethiopia, Burundi and Sierra Leone.
In reality the Kenyans have largely operated separately from the main AU force, occupying the former al-Shabab stronghold in the port city of Kismayo and its surrounding area. In allowing militia leader Sheikh Ahmed Madobe, a former al-Shabab member, to assume control of his own fiefdom in Kismayo and the income from the port, the occupation has disturbed lucrative business networks stretching throughout the Horn of Africa.
Under al-Shabab’s control Kismayo functioned as a tax-free port, channelling cheap goods to Somali traders in Nairobi and beyond. It was instrumental in Somali immigrants establishing a strong trading presence in Kenya, an achievement that caused deep resentment among traditional business interests.
This murky nexus of the state’s business supporters and its security officials has faced increased scrutiny since al-Shabab’s terror campaign has moved firmly into Kenya.
The grenade attacks that left a bloody trail on the roadside in Nairobi and Mombasa are unlikely to change Kenya’s foreign policy in the short term. What they have done is shine a light on the rot in Kenya’s security sector.
As columnist Rasna Warah wrote in the leading Daily Nation morning newspaper: “Corrupt police and bent immigration officers are costing Kenyans their lives.”