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President Kenyatta’s political manoeuvres play into al-Shabaab hands

burnt-carThe Kenyan military says it. The African Union says it. Even al-Shabaab says it. But President Uhuru Kenyatta not only refuses to say it; he actively denies it.

In a speech televised to the nation more than 40 hours after 49 of his countrymen were massacred in a terrorist attack on a coastal town, Mr Kenyatta has blamed not Islamist jihadis from al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militancy who claimed responsibility for the raid, but “local political networks”.

“The attack in Lamu was well-planned, orchestrated, and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community, with the intention of profiling and evicting them for political reasons,” he said in the speech on Tuesday afternoon. “This therefore, was not an al-Shabaab terrorist attack.”

Few corroborate his view. Eyewitnesses, who say gunmen targeted men who could not recite the Islamic creed, are among those convinced it was indeed a terrorist attack. Western diplomats and security experts – who have heavily criticised the Kenyan government’s response to insecurity in recent months – say it is appalling the government is politicising the latest massacre rather than addressing the rising security crisis.

“We have a force of terrorists brazenly killing dozens of people and this government is only making things worse by sowing the seeds of national division and raising ethnic tension to the roof at a time it should be talking about national unity,” said a western diplomat.

Mr Kenyatta’s speech referenced “frenzied political rhetoric laced with ethnic profiling of some of Kenya’s communities and obvious acts of incitement to lawlessness and possible violence”, the day after his interior minister warned unnamed politicians for crossing “a red line” and inciting violence.

“The really worrying thing is that [the government] is taking advantage of this horrendous situation to make political capital out of it against [opposition leader] Raila [Odinga],” said one analyst.

The day before, Mr Odinga held an emotive rally on the coast, one of his traditional strongholds. He renewed his calls for “saba saba” – a highly charged historical reference to mass rallies, to take place against the government on July 7, and declared he was not afraid to be arrested. (Saba saba is Swahili for “seven seven” and refers to efforts to secure regime change 24 years ago).

Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta are old rivals. The pair went head to head in the presidential race last year. Mr Odinga believes he lost only because of rigging, claims not upheld in court. He believes the 2007 contest, when he was placed second to Mr Kenyatta’s predecessor president Mwai Kibaki, was also rigged. The fraught polls divided the country on ethnic lines and triggered mass ethnicised political violence. More than 1,100 people were killed, 600,000 fled their homes and the country narrowly averted civil war after Mr Odinga was made prime minister in a shaky power-sharing deal.

Mr Kenyatta, then a rising political star, was indicted by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in stirring and financing the ethnic violence and still faces trial, a situation that enrages him and his coterie. Like the residents of the Mpeketoni town targeted in the coastal attack, Mr Kenyatta is a member of the dominant Kikuyu ethnic group. His father, the late president Jomo Kenyatta, gave the Mpeketoni coastal land – traditionally the home of Swahili Muslims – to Kikuyus who hail from central Kenya.

The reaction to the attacks is politicising existing ethnic tensions. “There is so much hate coming out — a lot of negative tribal energy is being churned out by politicians,” said one observer. “We’re going back to where we were six years ago and the president is not helping the situation.”

The government on Tuesday deployed paramilitaries to what it called “flashpoints” that could fall prey to an attack similar to that in Mpeketoni. Troops have been stationed not near Somalia but in ethnic strongholds that support Mr Odinga, a Luo – including in western Kenya and Nairobi’s largest slum. Isolated riots are already reported.

If al-Shabaab hoped its attacks on Kenya would destabilise the east African regional giant, it is at risk of succeeding in more ways than one.

-FT

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