February 18th 2017
BALBINA, a woman from Mombasa, Kenya’s main coastal city, remembers fetching her neighbour Abdullah’s body from a police station. “It wasn’t so terrible,” says Balbina (not her real name). Surprisingly, “there was not even any blood.” The wound was hidden at the back of his head; his face was serene. He was killed by police, in what they claimed (but she does not believe) was a shoot-out. “Abdullah did wrong. He went to Somalia, maybe he killed innocent people.” But he deserved justice, she says, not to be shot in the back of the head without a trial.
Such stories are easy to find on the Kenyan coast, where young men are often recruited to fight for al-Shabab (“the Youth”), a Somali jihadist group. Some go to fight in Somalia; some carry out terrorist attacks at home. In recent years the government has cracked down on anyone it suspects might have joined al-Shabab. In December Haki Africa, a human-rights group, published the names of 81 people, almost all young Muslim men, who it says were killed or “disappeared” by police since 2012. The real number is probably much higher, says Francis Auma, the group’s co-ordinator, since many cases go unreported or leave few clues implicating the state.
The coast of Kenya has long felt different from the rest of the country. Under British rule a ten-mile littoral strip was nominally part of a protectorate administered by the Sultan of Zanzibar, rather than part of the colony of Kenya. Unlike the rest of the mostly Christian country, the coast is largely Muslim, with a large ethnic Somali population to the north. And since independence from Britain in 1963, it has had a rebellious streak, built on anger about the unequal distribution of land and jobs, perceived persecution of Muslims, and dislike of rule by elites from Nairobi, the capital.
It is these resentments that help al-Shabab to recruit. Abdullah, says Balbina, “had no parents; he was lonely and jobless.” That made him easy prey for recruiters, who stoked his anger while also flashing cash and promising him a better life in Somalia. Money is a big lure, says a local official. Some jihadists even pose as recruitment agents for jobs in the Gulf, she says. “You see a man in a good car, he takes three or four guys, promising jobs.”
The Joy of Jihad
Many recruits are disappointed—Somalia is not the Islamic paradise they were told it was, and foreigners are used as cannon fodder. So they come back to Kenya, where they face an awful choice. They can join an amnesty programme and turn informer—thereby risking being killed by their erstwhile chums. Or they can refuse, and risk being “disappeared” by the police. Any young man who has been away from his village for a while, or who has been seen with suspected al-Shabab sympathisers, is in danger. Some bodies have been found dumped in a game park; others were presumably eaten by hyenas before they could be found.
Some of the disappeared were doubtless guilty, but none had a chance to defend himself in court. And in some cases the police apparently grabbed the wrong man. Idris Mohamed, 26, was shot in Mombasa. The family told reporters that police officers had stripped him naked, handcuffed him and forced him to lie face down before shooting him. (The police deny this, saying he was killed by an unknown assailant.) Officers who brought his body to the mortuary filed paperwork saying he was Ismael Mohamed, a terrorism suspect and the victim’s brother, who had not been seen for some months. “The facts strongly suggest a case of mistaken identity,” concludes Haki Africa.
Such criticism irks the government. Mr Auma says that Haki Africa has been harassed by the authorities since it began publishing reports of extrajudicial killings; at one point, the group’s bank accounts were frozen. Hassan Abdille of Muslims for Human Rights, another lobby group, says his staff have been spied on.
Apologists for the police note that the wave of jihadist attacks that hit the coast between 2011 and 2014 appears to have ebbed. But even if brutal tactics have curbed terrorism in the short term, they risk infuriating a generation of young Muslim men and storing up trouble for the future. “It’s counterproductive, as it is pushing some people towards radicalism when they see their kin killed and no justice done,” says Mr Auma.
Moreover, by killing those who return the police may be silencing an effective form of anti-jihadist propaganda. Left to their own devices, those returning would surely tell other youngsters how awful it was going to Somalia to fight. Many of those who come back are said to have complained that they were never paid as promised. Others suffered abuse: “They went there having been promised four wives each,” says a community worker. “Instead they became wives.”
Police hit squads are operating in an already febrile political atmosphere. In August Kenya will hold local and national elections, and Mombasa will be among the most fiercely contested cities. A system of devolution introduced in 2013 means that its governor controls a bigger budget. The incumbent, Ali Hassan Joho, is popular among local Muslims, whom he promises to defend from grasping ruling-party politicians in Nairobi. He is close to Raila Odinga, Kenya’s main opposition leader, and is said to be financing Mr Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement party.
Locals say that some six months before the vote, all the main parties are already recruiting youngsters into political gangs, known as “pressure groups” to intimidate opponents and their voters. They are paying voters to register and there could be widespread vote-buying on the day. Many say that Mr Joho’s supporters could turn violent if he looks likely to lose.
It would not be the first time that a Kenyan election turns bloody. After a flawed ballot in 2007 politicians stoked fighting that claimed some 1,300 lives. The whiff of that conflict hung heavily over the next vote in 2013, which nonetheless proceeded peacefully. But many in Kenya now fret that there may be a return to mayhem, particularly in Mombasa, where politicians are fighting for control of Kenya’s lucrative main port. With well-practiced hit-squads already on the prowl, the risks of conflagration are escalating.