A calm before the storm appears to have settled across Kenya, as the election campaign has finally ended ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Ten years ago post-election ethnic violence erupted in the country, and now no one in Kenya wants to see this repeated. However with opinion polls predicting a very close race between incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, there are growing fears that there could a new wave of violence could erupt. What will occur in Kenya over the coming days will be less about who wins the election and more about how those who have lost take their defeat.
The key to this will be the success of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) computerised voting system process being considered free and fair. In theory, the voting system in Kenya is good as:
- Electronic identity verification should not allow people to vote more than once or the many dead people on the roll to vote at all;
- Results will be announced at the constituency level;
- Published counts will be sent digitally to Nairobi to be added up;
- Election observers will be at thousands of polling stations.
However if it fails, which was the case in 2013, the votes will be counted manually, and verifying the voters’ roll will be a lot harder and may raise suspicions. Furthermore, in a country where vote-rigging has been alleged in the past, it is highly likely that the loser of the election will challenge the results, as was the case in 2013. During the last election, Raila Odinga turned the courts claiming electoral fraud. He however ended up losing his his case. This time, which is his fourth and probably last attempt to become president, he may turn to the streets if he considers that the election has been stolen, though in recent weeks he has called for calm amongst his supporters.
The IEBC has insisted that the system will work and it has successfully carried out a public “dry run” in order to prove it. However a quarter of polling stations are apparently outside of cellular data range. Furthermore, on 4 August, armed men raided a Nairobi building where the opposition is running its own parallel count and took computers. Later two foreign data analysts working for the opposition were expelled from Kenya. More than 180,000 agents from various organs of state security are also believed to have been deployed for the election. While this could be considered as a prudent security measure, it could also raise fears of polling station intimidation. The worst-case scenario is an extremely close result, a failed electronic voting system and a candidate who is not prepared to concede defeat.
Tensions have already been on the rise in the weeks leading up to the vote. The murder of a key figure a week before the election has really put the country on edge. Chris Msando, the IEBC head of technology, was in charge of the electronic system and was the man who appeared on television to reassure the public it would work and could not be hacked. When it tortured, strangled body was found dumped in a forest, it raised suspicions that somebody was planning to interfere with the election.
If no one wins more than 50% of the vote, then he election will go to a second round, however without a popular third candidate, this seems unlikely. Whatever does happen, the race has pitted two men against each other: Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s first president, against Raila Odinga, the son of its first vice-president and a man who also spent much of his political career in opposition. Mr Kenyatta, the 55-year-old incumbent, wants a second and final term in office for his Jubilee Party after narrowly winning the last election in 2013, despite having International Criminal Court (ICC) charges of inciting violence hanging over him. Mr Kenyatta, an ethnic Kikuyu, and his former rival William Ruto, a Kalenjin, were accused of inciting violence between the two communities. The charges related to the 2007 post-election violence, which killed around 1,200 people and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. While the ICC case recently collapsed due to lack of evidence and after key witnesses died or disappeared, old ethnic wounds, which were reopened, have still not completely healed.
Recent arrests have indicated that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group’s presence in East Africa is growing, with officials indicated that they are recruiting young Kenyans for jihad abroad and raising fears that some of them will return to threaten the country, which has already been affected by Somali-based al-Qaeda aligned al-Shabaab.
Kenyan intelligence agencies estimate that around one hundred men and women may have gone to join IS in Libya and Syria. This has triggered concerns that some may chose to come back in order to stage attacks on Kenyan and foreign targets in a country that has already been the victim of regular, deadly terrorism. According to Rashid Abid, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank, which is based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, “there is now a real threat that Kenya faces from IS and the danger will continue to increase.”
The first al-Qaeda attack in Kenya was the 1998 US embassy bombing and the most recent large attack was a university massacre in Garissa in 2015. The IS threat however is new and as yet ill defined. In March, four men appeared in court accused of seeking to travel to Libya in order to join IS. Then in early May, Kenyan police announced the arrest of a medical student, his wife and her friend. All three have been accused of recruiting for IS and plotting an anthrax attack. At the time, two other medical students were said to be on the run. Kenyan police chief Joseph Boinnet described a countrywide “terror network” linked to IS and led by Mohamed Abdi Ali, a medical intern at a regional hospital, “planning large-scale attacks” including one to “unleash a biological attack…using anthrax.” Three weeks later, police announced the arrest of two more members of “the ISIS (another acronym for IS) network that is seeking to establish itself in Kenya in order to conduct terror attacks against innocent Kenyans.” Police indicated that they had found “materials terrorists typically use in the making of IEDs” – homemade bombs – as well as “bows and poisoned arrows.”
While some experts have dismissed the suggestion of an imminent large-scale attack in Kenya, they have noted that the threat of IS radicalization, recruitment and return in the East African nation is genuine, with one foreign law enforcement official, who has examined the anthrax allegation, disclosing that “we cant see either the intent to carry out such an attack nor any real planning of it…But there is something in it: there is IS here, mainly involved in recruitment and facilitation.” Other officials also note that the recent arrests show that radicalization continues to be an issue affecting the entire country. While officials note that recruitment into Somali-based al-Shabaab remains the primary danger, there are increasing credible reports that other groups, such as IS, are gaining ground.
For now, Kenyan authorities have struggled to manage the return of their nationals from Somalia, where hundreds of Kenyans make up the bulk of al-Shabaab’s foreign fighters. In the future, experts have noted that that they will also likely have to deal with returning IS extremists as well as self-radicalized “lone wolf” attackers who have been inspired by the group’s ideology and online propaganda.
On Friday 6 May, the Kenyan government announced that refugees from Somalia will no longer be accepted in Kenya, citing security fears.
According to a statement that was signed by interior ministry official Karanja Kibicho, “the Government of the Republic of Kenya, having taken into consideration its national security interests, decided that hosting of refugees has come to an end.” The statement further indicated that under the directive, newly-arrived asylum seekers will not automatically receive refugee status and the government will step up efforts to have those who are already living in the country removed. Mwende Njoka, interior ministry spokesman, disclosed that “the message is clear, we are closing the camps and we will not accept more refugees in the country,” adding that new regulations were aimed at refugees from Somalia but that those from other countries may also be affected, noting “the problematic ones are the Somalis. They’re the ones we’re starting with.” Kenya hosts around 550,000 refugees in two camps in Kakuma and Dadaab, the world’s largest, many of whom have fled decades of war in neighboring Somalia. In 2013, the governments of Kenya and Somali, along with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) signed a so-called tripartite agreement, which was aimed at encouraging Somali refugees to return home voluntarily. However since then, only a few thousand have taken up the offer, which has left Kenya frustrated at the slowness. According to Kibicho, “Kenya has been forced by circumstances to reconsider the whole issue of hosting refugees and the process of repatriation,” adding that the Department of Refugee Affairs (DRA), which s responsible for refugee registration and management, had been “disbanded.” However a DRA employee reached by phone at work on Friday afternoon expressed surprise, stating that he knew nothing of the directive.
Government and security officials regularly asset that Islamic militants from al-Shabaab thrive and recruit among Somali refugees. These claims however have been denied by independent observers and by the refugees themselves who point out that many of them have fled al-Shabaab’s depredations. Following deadly al-Shabaab assaults on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre and Garissa university, senior officials threated to close Dadaab camp and remove the refugees. In April 2015, just days after that attack in Garissa, Deputy President William Ruto promised to close Dadaab “in three months,” however that deadline, like the previous ones. Friday’s statement again conflated refugees and terrorists emphasizing, “the immense security challenges such as threat of the Shebaab and other related terror groups that hosting of refugees has continued to pose to Kenya. New arrivals from Somalia will no longer receive ‘prima facie’ refugee status but will have to argue their cases individually. However the agency that has been tasked with processing those applications, the DRA, is to be shut down.
On Monday 9 May, the United Nations warned that Kenya’s decision to stop hosting refugees could have “devastating consequences” for hundreds of thousands of people. It has urged the country with the world’s largest refugee camp to reconsider the move. The UN agency has voiced alarm at the announcement, warning against “the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have. A statement released by UNHCR disclosed that “the safety of hundreds of thousands of Somalis, South Sudanese and others has (long) hinged on Kenya’s generosity and its willingness to be a leading beacon in the region for international protection,” adding, “tragically, the situations in Somali and South Sudan that cause people to flee are still unresolved.” UNHCR has appealed to Kenya to continue hosting the refugees, warning that it risked worsening the current global refugee crisis if it did not. In its statement, the agency reported that “in today’s global context of some 60 million people forcibly displaced, it is more important than ever that international asylum obligations prevail and are properly supported, “adding, “in light of this, and because of the potentially devastating consequences for hundreds of thousands of people that premature ending of refugee hosting would have, UNHCR is calling on the government of Kenya to reconsider its decision.” A group of charities working in the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya added their voices on Tuesday to those calling on Nairobi to reconsider a decision to stop hosting Somali refugees. The eleven charities described the Kenyan government’s decision to close Dadaab and Kakuma camps as “unfortunate, adding, “the recent announcement will have far reaching implications for the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who have called Kenya a place of refuge.” The eleven non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which together provide basic services including healthcare and clean water in the two camps, acknowledged Kenya’s burden in hosting refugees from around the region, however they urged the government not to implement its ne plan. The NGOs, which include the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Save the Children and the Norwegian Refugee Council, warned that closing the camps “violates the general principle of voluntary repatriation” and puts the refugees at risk, many of them women and children. Despite fears raised by aid agencies, human rights group sand the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Kenya has insisted that it will go ahead with the plan however no timeline has been released.
On Wednesday 11 May, the interior minister announced that Kenya is drawing up a timetable to close Dadaab refugee camp, which hosts about 350,000 Somalis, because of security concerns. According to Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery, the country has set up a taskforce to handle the closure plan. Speaking at a news conference, the minister disclosed that “they will present the timetable based on all the resources required,” adding that state funds had been allocated in order to proceed with the programme. He also disclosed that “the government has commenced the exercise of closing the complex of Dadaab refugee camp,” without specifying what new action had ben taken beyond a voluntary repatriation programme that is already in place.
Kenya has said that a search and rescue operation is underway in neighbouring Somalia as al-Shabaab militants claimed to have killed more than 100 Kenyan soldiers in Friday’s attack on an African Union (AU) base.
The base in southwestern Somalia was attacked by al-Shabaab fighters early Friday morning. On Sunday, military chief Samson Mwathethe told reporters in the capital Nairobi that “we embarked on a search, rescue and recovery operation as a priority,” adding, “our troops are engaging the terrorists.” While Kenyan officials have so far declined to say how many of its soldiers were killed, injured or missing in the attack, on Sunday, al-Shabaab indicated in a statement that more than 100 Kenyan soldiers were killed and others captured. In the statement, it said, “Mujahideen fighters…stormed the Kenyan base in the early hours of Friday morning, killing more than 100 Kenyan invaders, seizing their weapons and military vehicles and even capturing Kenyan soldiers alive.” Jihadist websites in Somalia are claiming that 12 Kenyan soldiers were captured. At the time of the attack, a company of around 150 Kenyan soldiers was stationed at the El-Adde base. On Sunday, four injured soldiers were returned to Nairobi.
The pre-dawn attack on the Kenyan base in Somalia’s Gedo region was at least the third major assault on isolated AU bases in the last year. In September, al-Shabaab fighters stormed a Ugandan AMISOM base in Janale district, which is located 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Mogadishu in the Lower Shabelle region. In June, al-Shabaab militants killed dozens of Burundian soldiers when they overran an AMISOM outpost northwest of Mogadishu.
On Thursday, al-Shabaab gunmen stormed a university in Kenya, killing at least 147 people in what is now the worst attack to occur on Kenyan soil since the 1998 bombing of the United States Embassy in Nairobi.
The siege ended nearly fifteen hours after the Somali-based group’s gunmen shot their way into Garissa University campus in the pre-dawn attack. According to police chief Joseph Boinet, the attackers “shot indiscriminately” when they entered the university compound. Police later surrounded the campus and exchanged gunfire with the attackers however they were repeatedly repelled. According to Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery, four gunmen strapped with explosives were behind the attack – the same number of gunmen that killed 67 people during the 2013 attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi. On the ground sources have disclosed that the militants spared the lives of Muslim students and took many Christian hostages. Officials have indicated that the death toll stands at 147 however they have warned that this toll is likely to increase in the coming days as officers search the campus. At least 79 people were injured, with many airlifted to hospitals in Nairobi. More than 500 students managed to escape. Troops continued to search the campus for any possible insurgents until the siege was declared over late on Thursday, with the national disaster operations centre disclosing that the raid had “ended with all four terrorists killed.” Officials have offered a US $215,000 bounty for the capture of alleged al-Shabaab commander Mohamed Mohamud, a former Kenyan teacher believed to now be in Somalia. He is said to be the mastermind of the Garissa attacks.
Hours into the raid, al-Shabaab spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack on the campus in Garissa, a town located 200 kilometres (120 miles) from the Somali border. The attack comes days after the Australian government warned that it had intelligence that the militant group was planning to carry out attacks in crowded places in the capital city Nairobi.
The latest attack in Kenya has prompted officials from that country, and neighbouring Somalia, to call for closer cooperation. On Friday, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud stated that Somalia and Kenya must boost security cooperation between them.